The results of Algeria’s May 10 legislative elections have been met with such fury by Algerians that some analysts believe that these will be the last elections held under the current regime. If there were any hopes for democracy still remaining in the country, these elections snuffed them out.
Allegations of electoral fraud have been widespread since the government announced on May 11 that the turnout was 42.9 per cent, with the government’s ruling parties winning an overwhelming majority of the votes. The Green Alliance of Islamist parties accused the government of “perpetrating widespread fraud”. Similar allegations were made by the secular Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). The Algerian National Front said it would challenge the results in the constitutional court over what party leader Moussa Touati called “blatant fraud”, while Ali Laskri, leader of the opposition Socialist Front Forces (FFS), said that Thursday’s vote “was riddled with irregularities”.
Abderrazak Mukri, a spokesman for the Alliance, said that the results given by the Interior Ministry differ dramatically from those seen by the Alliance’s observers. He told reporters: “There is a process of fraud on a centralised level to change the results that is putting the country in danger. … We are not responsible for what could happen.”
Electoral fraud by Algeria’s government is normal practice and expected. All elections since 1992, when the regime annulled Algeria’s only truly democratic elections, have been rigged. What seems to have incensed Algerians about these latest elections is the scale and audacity of the fraud, both in the fabrication of the turnout figure and in the distribution of the votes.
When I forecast the election result on May 9, I said that the government would come up with a much higher turnout. The “official” figure is usually put about three times higher than the “real” turnout. I predicted that the real turnout on May 10 would be in the range of 10-15 per cent, and that the official turnout figure would be 46 per cent (in the range of 40-50 per cent).
As it was, the turnout was given as 42.9 per cent. The government would like to have given a figure that could have been rounded up to “about half”, hence my forecast of 46 per cent. However, going much higher than 42.9 per cent on such a low real turnout could well have triggered demonstrations and violence.
On the other hand, a figure below 40 per cent would be interpreted as an admission of failure. Thus, a figure in the lower 40s was deemed sufficiently low to avoid unrest, but sufficient to enable the government to claim “success” on the grounds that 42.9 per cent is an improvement on the 2007 turnout of 37 per cent.
What was the “real” turnout? On the basis of the government’s usual threefold inflation of turnout, the real turnout figure would be 14.3 per cent. In fact, as more information from observers on the ground becomes available, it looks as if a figure of around 15 per cent might be about right. Professor Abdulali Rezaki of Algiers University was quoted as saying that he thought 85 per cent of voters would boycott the elections, while the RCD said the real turnout “did not exceed 18 per cent”.
Reports from around the country indicate that the vast majority of Algerians stayed away from polling stations in response to the calls of the FIS, AQIM, RCD, the Rachad Movement and countless youth, human rights, trade unions and other civil society organisations – in addition to many prominent personalities – to abstain.
For example, a Reuters reporter stood for 45 minutes outside a polling station in Bab El Oued (Algiers) without seeing a single voter enter. The agency also reported that election officers at two other polling stations in the capital had said that about ten per cent of those registered to vote had shown up by mid-afternoon. At Laghouat, on the northern fringe of the Sahara, where the interior ministry gave the turnout figure at 4pm as 38 per cent, local observers, who had been keeping a close watch on the town’s polling stations, gave the figure at that time as five per cent. Similar reports have been coming in from all over the country.
In addition to this abstention, there are reports that 20-22 per cent of ballot forms were blank or despoiled. I believe that most of these were cast by people who did not want to vote but felt frightened into doing so. If these blank votes are added to the abstention, then the real vote reduces to just 11-12 per cent.
Doctoring vote distribution
The government’s second fraud was to doctor the distribution of votes between parties. With the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) – which would have won the annulled 1992 election – banned from participating in these elections, it was widely believed that other Islamist parties, headed by the “Green Alliance” of Bouguerra Soltani’s Movement of Society Peace (MSP), the al-Nahda and al-Islaf parties and followed by Abdallah Djaballah’s Front for Justice and Development (FJD), would garnish the largest share of votes. They would be followed by the government’s Front de Liberation National (FLN), with the Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND) of the highly unpopular Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, unlikely to get more than one or two per cent of the vote.
Unofficial figures released by the Alliance in mid-afternoon were in line with this prediction. The FLN was heading for about 100 seats in the new 462-seat Assembly, with the Green Alliance close behind.
The official results, released the next day, were met with incredulity and anger. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s FLN had won 220, or 47.6 per cent, of the seats, a considerable improvement on its position in the outgoing National Assembly, while the RND came second with 69 seats (14.7 per cent), giving the two government parties a massive 62.3 per cent domination of the Assembly. The Islamist parties, in contrast, managed only 59 seats between them. The Alliance won 10.4 per cent of the vote and 48 seats, while the early front-runner, Abdallah Djaballah’s FJD, won a paltry 1.5 per cent and seven seats.
Even FLN supporters found these figures hard to believe. One reason for that is because the party had been in a state of intense internal fighting for the previous few months. Many of its offices had closed and most of its campaign rallies had been reduced or cancelled in the face of public resentment and disinterest. Many FLN members were of the view that the party was “finished” and that it would be lucky to pick up 20 per cent of the vote. In that light, 47.6 per cent seems beyond belief. They, too, know that this figure has been manipulated.
The second reason for incredulity at the FLN vote is simply a matter of political demography. With 21,664,345 registered voters, the government’s figures mean that 9.29 million people voted, a figure which not only defies observations at polling stations, but means that 4.42 million of them voted for the FLN. If we add in the RND, then it means that 5.79 million Algerians voted for the two ruling government parties, both of which are resented and hated by the vast majority of citizens. If we reduce this figure by 20 per cent to take account of the spoiled ballots, we are still left with 4.63 million Algerians voting for a government that they are desperately keen to replace. Such a figure makes no sense.
The mechanics of fraud
Finally, there is the overwhelming question of how such electoral fraud could have taken place when the country, according to the government’s version of events, was awash with foreign observers.
The obvious point is that it is absolutely impossible for some 500 foreign observers to keep an eye on 48,546 polling stations. Neither can opposition party observers cover this number of stations. The opportunity for ballot stuffing and other irregularities, especially in remote areas, is immense.
In addition, the system of “vote par procuration”, whereby an estimated 600,000 – 700,000 people, mostly in the police, gendarmerie, military and administrative services, can have their votes cast for them by a designated family relative, officer or official, allows for substantial multiple voting.
Moreover, with the Algerian government refusing to make the electoral roll accessible to foreign observer missions, it is impossible for them to check such irregularities even if they had the resources to do so.
Reactions from the government
The government’s reaction to these results has been one of arrogant triumphalism, encapsulated in El Moudjahid’s headline: “If there’s a winner on this Algerian Spring day, it’s undoubtedly the people.” It went on to say: “In their millions, Algerians projected a good image of democracy, proving to the world that they are not disconnected from political life.”
Horizons, another pro-government newspaper, said the vote showed an “appeased and reconciled Algeria … diametrically opposed to those who wreak chaos and support interference”.
In the run-up to the election, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia described the so-called Arab Spring as a “plague”, which, he said, had resulted in “the colonisation of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt”.
Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said that the “remarkable” turnout of 42.9 per cent confirmed Algeria’s democratic credentials. He explained the large vote for the FLN as a sign that Algerians wanted the security of the government rather than “change”, and that they had seen through “the false claims of the Islamists”.
Algerians can draw little comfort from the reactions of Algeria’s Western and Arab allies, whose support for Algeria since 1992 has been more about maintaining the present regime in power than encouraging democracy.
The Arab League’s 132-member observer mission said the election was “transparent, credible and well-organised”, while the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation praised the “successful and democratic elections… held in an organised, transparent and peaceful manner”. Neither recorded any irregularities.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Algeria’s elections as “a welcome step in Algeria’s progress toward democratic reform”, while Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, congratulated the people of Algeria “on the conduct of the elections and the progress they represent”.
Jose Ignacio Salafranca, head of the EU observer mission said that the vote was satisfactory and that “citizens were, in general, able to truly exercise their right to vote”.
Based on these readings, Algerians clearly have nothing to worry about.
Jeremy Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
This article originally appeared here