Doctoring the Algerian vote

The importance of the legislative elections lies not in which party wins, but in how many people vote.

Algerian President Abdelazziz Bouteflika
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government has been promising reforms since early 2011 [AFP]

London, United Kingdom – Predicting election results is a dangerous game, but not in Algeria, where the result has already been decided. The importance of the May 10 legislative elections for the regime lies not in which party wins, but in how many people vote.

The number of people who will cast a vote will be very small, almost certainly no more than between 10-15 per cent of the electorate, although Algiers could get up to 20 per cent. The likely figure, if I am to make exact predictions, is around 12 per cent.

We will never actually know whether I am correct on that point, as the turnout figure has already been decided upon by the regime. It will almost certainly be announced as being somewhere between 38 per cent and 52 per cent. That spread could be narrowed to between 40-50 per cent. The regime would like to come up with a figure of over 50 per cent, but that could be asking for trouble in the form of unrest and demonstrations. So, it is more likely that Algeria’s rulers will be cautious and come up with a figure of around 45-46 per cent.

Let me explain why this prediction can be made with such near certainty.

Algeria has never had free and fair elections since the multi-party system was introduced over two decades ago. All elections since then have either been annulled, as in 1992, or simply rigged. Algerians know this, and they know that the May 10 election is not going to be any different.

These elections have nothing to do with “political power” and even less with democracy. In reality, they are a referendum on the Algerian regime. Let me explain:

Algeria’s Parliament consists of two Chambers: the People’s National Assembly (Lower Chamber) and the Council of the Nation (Upper Chamber). Thursday’s elections are for the Lower Chamber, which has virtually no power for three key reasons.

Firstly, the Lower Chamber can be blocked by the Upper Chamber, which effectively represents the “regime”. That is because one-third of its seats are appointed by the president while the remaining two-thirds are elected indirectly through the wilayat (provinces) so that they effectively represent the roots and branches of the administration.

Secondly, Algeria has a presidential and not a parliamentary system of government, meaning that most of the power is effectively in the hands of the president.

Thirdly, the president is largely hamstrung by the country’s secret intelligence service, the Direction du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), with whom President Abdelaziz Bouteflika must negotiate almost every decision that he wishes to make.

Referendum on the regime

So, if the May 10 elections have so little to do with real political power, why are they being trumpeted by both the regime and the Western world as so important? The answer is because they are, in practice, a referendum on the regime itself.

The West (notably the US, the UK, France and by default the EU) is desperate to keep the Algerian regime, one of the most repressive and unpopular in the Arab world, in power. The West is therefore desperate for Algeria’s regime to undertake some measure of political reform in order to avoid going the way of neighbouring dictatorships or, quite possibly, the Syrian model, which, as a military dictatorship, is more akin to Algeria.

Bouteflika’s government has been making noises about constitutional and political reform since early 2011. However, they are largely minimalistic and designed to buy the regime more time rather than bring about any sort of meaningful change that might meet the demands of the country’s citizens.

Algerians know that the regime’s much-talked-about reforms are little more than talk. And they are angry. Few beyond the government-controlled press, the state-run broadcasting service and Algeria’s condescending Western allies consider that Bouteflika’s supposed reforms are more than a sham.

This is why the election has become a referendum on the regime itself. If the regime can show the West that a reasonable amount of Algerians, more than 50 per cent, have voted, then it is a demonstration that there is a reasonable amount of support for the regime and its proposed reforms. Algerians also know this, and that is why the active abstention vote will be so high.

The actual distribution of votes between the 42 parties contesting the election, most of whom are government-created shells and completely unknown to the electorate, is of little relevance. The major political parties, notably the FIS, are either not allowed to stand or have chosen to boycott the election, while most Algerians are actively abstaining in protest at the regime and the entire electoral farce.

The spread of votes between parties will, in any case, be manipulated. For example, there will be an almost negligible vote, perhaps 1-2 per cent, for the RND party of the highly unpopular Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. The RND vote will therefore be massaged up by a few percentage points to save him and the government humiliation. The fact that the array of moderate Islamist parties, most of whom are seen as collaborators of the regime, is likely to garner more votes than other parties (but probably not enough to form a majority) is certainly not a manifestation of the “Arab Spring”. In any case, this question of party representation in the new lower assembly is of little concern to the regime for the reasons outlined above.

‘About half’

Rather, the government’s dilemma is over which figure to report for voter turnout. It would desperately like to come up with a figure of over 50 per cent, and it may be tempted to do so. But that will antagonise Algerians, who will know it is false, and will almost certainly trigger more unrest and violence – something the regime does not want the West to see in the immediate wake of the elections. On the other hand, a figure below 40 per cent is really an admission of defeat. Therefore, we are into the 40-50 per cent range.

Demonstrations and violence are more likely to begin in the day or two after the election, especially if the government comes up with a turnout percentage above 50 per cent.

If I had to give a precise prediction, I would say 46 per cent. That is a figure that can be “rounded up” and portrayed to and by the West as being “about half”, and therefore just about acceptable. Around 46 per cent may also be just below the threshold that could trigger potentially massive demonstrations against the regime.

This raises the question of whether the election itself will be marred by demonstrations and violence. This is possible, but unlikely for two reasons. The first is because the electoral process will be held under a heavy police presence. National police chief General Abdelghani Hamel has confirmed that 60,000 police have been deployed across the country and that trainees are being called up, while Major Farouk Achour, Information Officer for the Directorate-General of Civil Defence, has said that 19,000 civil defence personnel have been mobilised. In addition, the gendarmerie and special army units will be on standby. The second reason is that the vast bulk of the Algerian population will be demonstrating against the elections by staying away.

Demonstrations and violence are more likely to begin in the day or two after the election, especially if the government comes up with a turnout percentage above 50 per cent.

Finally there is the question of how such manipulations can take place in the presence of so many international observers. The answer is very simple: It is absolutely impossible for some 500 international observers to even observe over 7,000 polling stations, let alone analyse the “count”. And without a copy of the electoral roll, which Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia has so far refused to give to the head of the EU Observer team, the observers’ efforts are stymied.

Questions must be also asked of the political motives of the EU and other international bodies for not only agreeing to send observers but to seemingly tolerate such treatment. It will be interesting to see whether their reports reflect the same concerns as I have raised here.

Jeremy Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.