There is a strong feeling among Algerians that the parliamentary elections, on May 30 will not resolve the crises gripping their country. The legislators elected have no influence on policy, and the military, which cancelled the elections in 1991 which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) were set to win, will also continue to rule the country from behind the scenes. With President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika and the government playing second fiddle to the generals, the crippling civil war and corruption, both in public and private sectors, will continue unabated. Moreover, the new problem posed by the Berbers is going to be aggravated by the decision of the parties in the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia to boycott the elections, and by the regime’s pledge to crack down on anyone organizing a boycott.
The Berbers are not, of course, the only Algerians boycotting the poll. Most voters are put off by the futility of electing a chamber that will have no influence on policy, and by the well-deserved reputation of elections in Algeria, whether parliamentary or presidential, as fraudulent, with their ultimate results determined by the all-powerful generals. Given that many credible opponents of the regime – including FIS – are not allowed to stand, it is not surprising that Algerians are bored.
The National Democratic Party (RND) was created on the army’s orders to contest the parliamentary elections of 1997 – the first since 1991 – to whip up support for the regime. The generals reckoned that as the FLN, the only party in the country until 1989, had a reputation for being corrupt and ineffective, the voters would desert it totally. Such was the junta’s control over the election proceedings that the RND secured the largest number of seats in the new parliament. The Algerians, who were far from impressed, accorded it the treatment it deserves. The RND is now trying to cut its losses by fielding only half of its current MPs. The FLN is expected to benefit and gain most of the new seats in the chamber.
Bouteflika, who was the army’s candidate in the last presidential election, appears confident of its backing, and is therefore content to repeat familiar and meaningless platitudes. In a speech on May 19, for instance, the president simply called on the Algerian people to help him "cut off the heads of the snakes of corruption" and to "get rid of those who fund terrorists". In his speech, on the anniversary of Students Day (May 19, 1956, when Algerian students deserted their schools to join the independence revolution, 1954-1962) he admitted that the authorities knew perfectly well who the "snakes of corruption" and the "bankrollers of terrorism" were, and insisted that the authorities need the public’s help to proceed against them. Giving no reason for why the regime is unable to act against them if they are that well known, he even appeared to blame the Algerian people. "There are those who see [what is happening] but do nothing, either because of lack of courage or out of hatred for the state," he said.
Ali Bin Falis, the prime minister and secretary general of the FLN, has also displayed similar ineptitude. In a newspaper interview on May 18, for instance, he insisted that the FLN was now fit to seek power, as he had reorganized it since taking over as secretary general last September. In his interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, he claimed that the new reforms "gave women and young people" a prominent and unprecedented role in party affairs. But when his interviewer, after agreeing that the program was indeed long and clear, suggested that the FLN shared responsibility for the endemic corruption and mismanagement because of its many years in power, he became more evasive. And when pressed on his plans for ending corruption, he simply said that the FLN demanded that all its candidates sign "a candidates’ charter". According to him the charter puts serving public interests before private ones.
Algeria’s youth do not hold the regime or the FLN in high regard, if their treatment of Bouteflika on May 29 is any guide. The students of one university in Algiers threw stones at the cars carrying him and his entourage. Nor was the students’ protest confined to Algiers. In Wahran city (western Algeria), the security forces had to intervene to quell similar protests. The clashes between students and the security forces were more widespread and violent in the Kabylia region, despite the fact that Bouteflika did not go there.
The more familiar and destructive violence, which the government blames on two ‘Islamist’ groups, the Salafist Group for Predication and Combat (GSPC) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has also escalated in the run-up to the elections. In the first three weeks of May, 140 people, including members of the armed forces, were killed. In all 560 people, including 130 members of the armed forces, died in attacks in the first five months of 2002, according to figures published in late May.
In these circumstances it is difficult to imagine a more pointless election poll. But the generals are determined to demonstrate to the west, particularly the US, that the country is ‘democratising’ and that ‘Islamic terrorists’ will not be allowed to halt the process. Algeria has become an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘war on terrorism’, and the poll facade will suit both Washington and the Algerian regime. The political parties and their candidates are not complaining either, as those who are ‘elected’ will get the opportunities and patronage that go with the seats.