On June 12, early elections will be held in Algeria to elect 407 members to the General People’s Assembly, the lower house of the country’s parliament. The vote was originally slated to take place in 2022, but President Abdelmadjid Tabboune has moved the election date forward in response to ongoing anti-government protests in the country.
A protest movement, known as Hirak, was born in Algeria in 2019 in response to the announcement of then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth presidential term. Weekly mass demonstrations led Bouteflika, in power since 1999, to step down in April 2019. Bouteflika’s departure from the political scene did not, however, mark the end of this popular movement. The demonstrators continued to take to the streets regularly, this time demanding a complete overhaul of the political system, which would involve – in particular – the distancing of the political sphere from the all-powerful military of the country.
Protests by the Hirak movement largely ceased in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, protests came back in full force in February 2021, after the country managed to bring the outbreak under control.
In recent months, the economic fallout from COVID-19 and falling oil prices have resulted in rising unemployment and a significant drop in the purchasing power of Algerians, intensifying further protests. The government’s recent crackdown on dissenting voices, including members of the Hirak movement, has also heightened unrest.
The military leadership, which does not want to give in to the public’s demands for a truly civil and democratic state, has attempted to contain the unrest through various levels of repression as well as political tactics such as a constitutional amendment in 2020. And the next one The legislative snapshot election is another effort by the military-controlled regime to ease tensions.
However, the Hirak movement and many political actors in Algeria quickly rejected the spectacle election. And, as evidenced by ongoing protests and growing public criticism of the state, a significant portion of the Algerian population seems to agree.
As a result, a majority of the population is expected to boycott the upcoming elections. Moreover, despite promises to remain neutral, the military will likely have a say in which parties come to power after the election. In Algeria, it is still very difficult to imagine a scenario in which a party wins the majority against the will of the military. It is even more unlikely that following the elections, the power dynamics in Algeria will change to the point where any actor or political body can challenge or control the important powers of the military. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the June 12 elections will cause any real change in the country.
An opportunity for the Islamists?
About 24 million eligible voters are expected to vote on Saturday to elect a new lower house of parliament for a five-year term. There are 1,483 voters lists; 646 of them were submitted by political parties and 837 by independents. Of the 22,554 candidates, 10,468 are from political parties while 12,086 are independent. The number of independent candidates exceeds that of candidates from political parties – a first in Algerian history.
Seen as pro-regime and seen by the popular movement as partly responsible for the ongoing political and economic crises, established parties like the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (RND) are likely to win fewer votes than in the 2017 legislative elections. However, the loss of their share of influence in parliament will depend on the performance of other smaller parties. In particular, the performance of Algerian Islamist parties will likely determine the composition of the next parliament and the next government.
Islamist parties have long struggled to gain popular support in Algeria. In 1992, the military dismantled the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist political party, when it became clear that it was on track to win parliamentary elections. This decision sparked a bloody civil war, which lasted until 2002, and left an estimated 200,000 dead. The legacy of this bloody civil war has pushed Islamists to the fringes of the Algerian political sphere, leaving them with little possibility of regaining power.
The ongoing unrest, coupled with the regime’s legitimacy crisis and the lack of a credible alternative, could, however, offer Islamist parties an opportunity to gain more influence in parliament after Saturday’s elections.
Nonetheless, Islamist parties can still struggle to seize this moment of opportunity and maximize their votes. Throughout their election campaigns, Islamist parties have tried to appeal to non-Islamist and less radical voters. This could cause them to lose the support of some of their main voters, namely the “radical Islamists”, in the next elections. In addition, some Islamist parties have expressed their willingness to work with the regime to change things, which could cause them to lose the support of voters who want the regime to leave. These parties can also be affected by the very fact that they did not reject these elections or that they have been in government in the past.
For example, the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP), an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood – whose leader Abderrazak Makri recently declared that his party is ready to govern and maintains good relations with the authorities – has continued to participate in the government between 1997 (the first post-civil war legislative elections) and 2011. El-Binaa party leader Abdelkader Bengrina, who came second behind Tebboune in the 2019 presidential election, used his campaign program to call for reconciliation and get out of the civil war. .
These parties can still win enough votes to lead the lower house of parliament. However, they are unlikely to continue with the radical reform agenda sought by the Hirak movement.
Thus, they do not pose a threat to the regime. Indeed, President Tebboune recently declared that he was not embarrassed by the moderate Islamic ideology of these parties and that he was ready to work with them. Therefore, if the Islamist parties end up forming the new Algerian government, they would most likely be in a position similar to that of the Justice and Development Party of neighboring Morocco, which was previously in opposition but has since bowed. in front of the regime.
The big picture
All signs indicate that the June 12 elections in Algeria will not result in any substantial change or reform, and will instead be used by the regime as a tool to regain some form of legitimacy.
But the regime’s apparent plans to treat the election result as a seal of approval are complicated by the expected low voter turnout. Many Algerians have boycotted the elections in recent years – the 2019 presidential election recorded a 40% turnout, while the 2020 referendum on the constitution recorded a record 24% turnout. With the Hirak movement and several left-wing and Amazigh political parties rejecting the elections, voter turnout on Saturday is also likely to be low.
This will be a problem for the regime which aims not only to appease the popular movement by electing a new lower house of parliament, but also seeks to create the impression that it has the support of the Algerian people. He will probably find himself unable to do so either, as political actors and citizens are aware that this election is part of the regime’s illusory liberalization strategy and that the military leadership will never allow true democratization.
Regardless of which parties win the election or the type of coalition formed as a result of these elections, there are two points to remember.
First, the real power will remain in the hands of the military. As a result, any future reform will most likely be cosmetic, aimed at strengthening the powers of the regime while appeasing protesters.
Second, the Hirak movement will persevere and the majority of its members will remain uncompromising. The demands for regime change will not simply go away, and the military leadership will not genuinely give in to these demands in the near future. The current stalemate will therefore persist, leaving repression as the main issue. While both sides initially exercised restraint in using violence to avoid a repeat of the civil war of the 1990s, the regime has recently resorted to severe crackdowns and may continue to do so if a compromise is not found.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.