Monday, 6 February 2012

Algeria: The battle for abstention

e Algerian regime is staking almost everything on the spring parliamentary elections to prove to the world that it is really reforming; few Algerians believe it to be true. The regime's fear is that most Algerians will simply not bother to go to the polls. In many respects it does not matter which party wins the election as long as there is a reasonably high turnout. That is what the regime needs to show to the world, or at least its few Western allies and backers, that it is meaningfully engaged in democratic reform.

Most Algerians stopped bothering to vote a long time ago because they know the elections are rigged and are pointless, and few believe that much has changed in that regard. The regime, however, is showing signs of increasingly acute desperation. As we reported last week, the Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdallah Ghlamallah has ordered the imams to 'get people to the polling stations', while the Interior Ministry has taken to texting Algerians about the virtues of voting.

Against these increasingly desperate measures a movement is spreading through the social network channels urging people to abstain. In the absence of anything resembling a recognised polling system it is difficult to get any sort of quantitative feel of how the 'abstention vote' is playing. There is, however, a sense that the abstention movement is taking root as a direct form of opposition to the regime. Whether the government will be able to counter this is highly debatable and we will not know until polling day arrives.

As the awareness of the abstention movement grows, political parties and commentators are expressing fears that the government will resort to its normal tactics of rigging the ballot. Political party leaders, and especially the 'opposition' parties, as well as media commentators are warning that any attempt to rig the election will ignite an explosion.

Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah - leader of the newly registered Justice and Freedom Party, a moderate Islamist party which some Algerians see as one of the few credible challengers to the government - said in an interview this week: "We hope that we can go towards a democratic system peacefully ... but if fraud is committed during the upcoming elections, it will be the biggest factor that will push the people towards an explosion”.

Among several opposition elements whom we have questioned on this issue there seems to be a growing awareness that the government will have no choice but to rig the election, at least in falsifying the turnout figures, and that this will be the 'final straw', the catalyst, that will tip Algeria into the sort of national unrest that has long been anticipated but which has so far been held in check.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria, please see Algeria Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

© 2012 Menas Associates

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