Algerians voted for a new parliament last Thursday in the country’s first national elections since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The results of the vote are underwhelming and leave little hope that the aching democratic aspirations of Algeria will be met anytime soon. This did not have to be the case. Some months ago, in fact, the specter of these elections filled observers of Algerian politics with a gulp of fresh air, when it looked like something, finally, new, might happen and herald real political reform. Thanks to the vibes of change emanating from their Maghrebi neighbors, Algerian political parties appeared to muster new energies and poise themselves to respond to this desire for change. No party, perhaps, felt these tremors more than the MSP-HMS one of Algeria’s largest Islamist-oriented parties. In January of this year, the MSP broke from a 13-year-old coalition with Algeria’s ruling nationalist parties, formed a “Green Alliance” with two smaller Islamist parties and predicted the inevitable victory of Islamism in parliament. Such a scenario was not implausible. The MSP had made their declaration against a backdrop of steady social unease, evidenced not in the least by scores of public immolations, and their presence gave urgency to the Algerian ruling parties’ plea to the people to vote massively. It looked, therefore, like we might have a real election on our hands.
Whatever new energy had percolated, however, it was not enough to shake the deep sense of apathy that so many Algerians have assumed towards a political system they know is not theirs. Thus the nationalist ruling parties may have technically won the elections (together they claim 62% of the vote), but in doing so, they have failed to shore up any popular credibility for the regime. In what was billed as a referendum on the regime’s legitimacy, therefore, the majority of Algerians who did not vote (officially 57% abstention, but quite possibly much higher) implicates a loss for the regime’s ruling parties. The Green Alliance, for their part, came nowhere near to taking over the parliament, gaining only 10% of the vote. They are calling fraud and organizing a protest, but even if we more than double their results to what the MSP claims to have won, that is, to 22%, they still failed to convincingly get out the Islamist vote. This leaves Algerians stuck again with an unpopular, lackluster, illiberal political regime and political opposition at a moment when the frustrated desire for competent politics remains high.
There are several timely lessons to be learned in all of this for both Algeria and the rest of North Africa. First it clearly illustrates some of the limits for new political Islamism in the region. Algeria’s MSP, like Tunisia’s Ennahda, Turkey’s AKP and Morocco’s PJD, has dedicated itself to a milder blend of identity politics and pragmatic policy positions than its forebears. After having participated in Algerian elections for more than twenty years, what the experience of the MSP proves, however, is that combining compromises and religious identity politics is not enough to buy lasting political relevance. The MSP has not been capable of consistently coming up with competent political strategies or overcoming intra-Islamist competition (two of Algeria’s most famous Islamist personalities, Abdallah Djaballah and Abdelmadjid Menasra ran on separate tickets). Last week’s elections are an indicator of just how little the MSP has to show for its years of participation.
A second lesson is that while illiberal democracies still have some shelf-life in the region, their expiration dates seem to be nearing. Thus, even though President Bouteflika’s regime ran an actual political campaign, invited in hundreds of foreign electoral observers and put on all the show of a real democracy in motion, it wasn’t enough to convince Algerians that the regime had not toyed with the process all along. By tinkering at the edges and hassling all the small guys in the opposition, the state made the veneer of democracy that much thinner in Algeria and the promise of reform that much more hollow-sounding.
And that brings us to a final lesson, which is that for all of the hopes raised, the Arab Spring is also partly to blame for these diminishing democratic prospects in Algeria. The persistent political uncertainty of the region, with Libya to the east and Mali to the south, puts the shadowy, crooked, disparate forces who make the decisions in the country on the defensive and stacks the cards against any more political liberalization in Algeria. Which is why even if Algerian voters had called the regime on their game and voted in mass protest for parties of the opposition last Thursday, it was that much more likely that Algeria’s next leader would come out wearing a uniform, as Rachid Tlemcani put it recently. The menace hanging around Algeria’s presidential palace had implied so much already, making it difficult for Algerians to vote for the opposition (because they knew what would happen then) or vote for the regime (which was going to go on ruling anyway). So nobody voted. No legitimacy was distributed. No new hope for change was kicked down the road. And everybody loses in Algeria again.