North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

These elections were supposed to deliver a ‘New Algeria’. So why didn't Algerians vote?

The country has just seen its lowest ever voter turnout, weakening the standing of those elected and exposing an ongoing divide

Sarra-Menal Ferkache Latefa Narriman Guemar Jessica Northey
30 June 2021, 12.01am
These were the first elections in Alegria since the Hirak protests led President Bouteflika to step down in 2019
Karl Nesh / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On Saturday 12 June Algerians went to the polls to vote for a new parliament. This was the first election since President Bouteflika stepped down in 2019, following the mass protests referred to as the Hirak movement.

The election saw significant boycotts from much of the opposition and scepticism among large parts of the population as to the likelihood of any meaningful change. Turnout was the country’s lowest ever, confirmed to be just 23% by the National Independent Electoral Authority (ANIE), which was created in the aftermath of the 2019 protests. The low turnout damages the standing of those elected and far greater efforts will be needed to include Algerians into the political institutions in their country.

More than 20,000 candidates stood for 407 seats, representing 58 electoral regions. Just over 10,400 of these candidates came from 28 political parties, which stood with 646 lists, but an even greater number (12,086) were independents, which stood with an unprecedented 837 lists.

In certain regions polling stations were shut down due to clashes between protesters and the authorities, according to journalists.

The head of the ANIE, Mohamed Chorfi, announced results on Tuesday 15 June and the president of the Constitutional Court Kamel Fenniche confirmed and updated the results a week later on Wednesday 24 June.

The traditional nationalist parties, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the aligned Democratic National Rally (RND), which have dominated the political scene in Algeria since its independence, took a significant hit. Though the FLN still won overall, it lost 57 seats, going from 155 to 98. Independent candidates, including many young people with no political affiliation, came in second with 84 seats. The moderate Islamist party, the Movement for a Peaceful Society (MSP), increased its voteshare to take third place, followed by the RND.

One significant change is the drop in female deputies from 35% to 8% of parliament, despite women candidates representing half of all those who stood. This may be explained by the highly patriarchal political atmosphere that accompanied the electoral campaign. Equally, officials from the ANIE pointed out to us that the candidate-selection process allowed derogations if gender quotas could not be respected. An informal directive signed by the ANIE asks delegates not to be too strict on the issue of quotas for women, instead, it seems, prioritising new quotas for young candidates.The boycott also clearly influenced the outcome, and highlighted the entrenched lack of trust between the people and political parties.

Youth participation

President Tebboune called for these early parliamentary elections, as part of his roadmap to a “New Algeria”.

To encourage young people to take part, quotas were put in place in the new 2021 electoral law to ensure at least half of candidates on each list were under 40 years old and that at least a third held a university degree.

Grants of around £2,000 were also offered to candidates aged 40 or under, to fund their electoral campaigns. Many older Algerians ironically named this the “parliament of youth employment”.

This has certainly tempted one group of young people, disappointed by the lack of a tangible roadmap from the Hirak, to engage with the elections and to consider how to contribute to the country’s future.

Related story

Two years on from the Hirak movement that brought down the former regime, people in Algeria are again taking to the streets to demand democracy

Dr Loubna Nacer, a member of a network of youth researchers, from the University of Bordj Bou Arreridj, pointed out that the Hirak movement “really did change young people’s minds and mindsets”. In particular, Nacer said, it made them “more engaged in protecting their local environments. This was a political issue. Doing something positive at the local level was part of creating the ‘New Algeria’ that so many youth aspired to.”

A variety of civil society forums, particularly since 2011, have campaigned for political change in Algeria, targeting the Parliament and the press, as well as actively working on the ground on a wide range of actions, from solidarity to the environment and social entrepreneurship. Young people have been at the forefront of all this.

Lost trust

The 2019 Hirak movement demonstrated the frustration of an entire generation with their exclusion from political life. It eloquently called out the corruption and the hogra (the contempt for ordinary citizens) of the previous ways of governing. The positive response of the Algerian protesters, who broke down a wall of fear around political protest and claimed their rights in a consistently peaceful way, over many weeks, was remarkable.

Recent interviews President Tebboune gave with French newspaper Le Point and Al Jazeera, as well as press conferences, both on election day and beforehand, highlighted moves by the government to communicate more openly.

Speaking with Algerians at home and abroad, to lay out aspirations and the challenges and risks facing the country, the president’s speeches appeared to be an attempt to rebuild trust in Algerian institutions.

The election saw scepticism among large parts of the population as to the likelihood of any meaningful change

While important debates are ongoing, particularly online, the Hirak is weakened because it is not proposing on-the-ground solutions to the problems facing the country.

The Hirak called for democracy, and it is during elections, however problematic, that people’s voices are heard. The election of representatives to Parliament is paramount for ensuring the people who hold power exercise it fairly, and for helping people to achieve their social, civil and political rights.

Prior to these elections, large strikes hit different sectors including education, healthcare, and postal services. The pandemic, the lockdowns and border closures have badly affected Algeria and its diaspora, as has the fall in oil prices as a result of global downturns. Unemployment remains a major challenge. Supporting businesses out of the crisis, diversifying the economy, improving social care, health and education, transitioning to renewable energy and restoring faith in the institutions, are equally important to achieve.

A new Algeria

Corruption scandals – including candidates paying to be at the head of a party list, and salaries being tripled under the previous president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – and the impression of the parliament as inefficient, simply a rubber stamp for decisions made by the executive, underline the need for change. The divisions over the vote and the low turnout indicate Algerians’ scepticism as to whether this is underway, as well as a rejection of Tebboun’s roadmap by the Hirak.

Meaningful change will more likely come from the real activism on the streets of Algeria, as it did during the Hirak, and in the grassroots work of youth, associations, community groups, journalism and online debates being held by academics and civil society figures across the country.

Young people are engaged with and participating in community projects, such as protecting their environments and creating small- and medium-sized enterprises across a multitude of sectors contributing to the post-COVID recovery and to regeneration at the local level. Rebuilding their trust in political institutions, and strengthening those institutions, is an important next step.

Following the election, President Tebboune announced that the “turnout was not important”. It is certainly the case that for his government the main priority was restoring the damaged relationship between Algerian governance, and in particular the electoral process, and citizens. Electoral administrations, ministries and diplomatic missions all had to accept the independent role of the ANIE. It is not clear whether that happened.

Rebuilding and revitalising the political institutions of the country will be paramount to ensuring Algeria recovers in a fair and sustainable manner and thrives in the next decades.

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