Algerians vote for new parliament in ballot marked by youth apathy

Reuters News
Posted: May 04, 2017 7:30 AM

By Patrick Markey

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians voted on Thursday in a parliamentary election expected to hand the ruling FLN and allies a majority as the government deals with low oil prices and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's absence since a 2013 stroke.

Turnout is traditionally low in elections for the 462-seat National Assembly which many Algerians see as offering little change to a political system dominated since independence by the FLN, and social media has conveyed a sense of apathy among younger voters.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) and the pro-government National Rally for Democracy (RND) are widely expected to win against a weak and divided opposition that includes leftists and Islamist party alliances.

"You have to vote. You can never leave the ballot box empty," said Morad Saadi, 49, a cleaning products salesman voting at school in central Algiers, where voters, mainly the elderly and families, showed up early.

The National Assembly has limited powers in the presidential system where lawmakers have a five-year term. A new constitution allows parliament a say in naming the prime minister but critics see it as a rubberstamp assembly.

In the 2012 election, the FLN won 221 seats and the RND 70 seats by playing the stability and security card following the 2011 Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But turnout was just 43 percent.

Results for Thursday's vote will be announced on Friday morning by the interior ministry.

In power for nearly two decades, Bouteflika is widely praised for bringing the country out of a decade-long 1990s war with Islamist militants that killed 200,000 people and left many Algerians still wary of instability.

Government officials and ruling parties mostly appealed to security and continuity, with a reminder of the risks of upheaval in next door Libya still in chaos following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A veteran of the war against colonial France, Bouteflika also oversaw a period of high oil prices that financed a massive welfare system from cheap housing and subsidized fuel and food programs with roots in Algeria's post-independence socialism.

But a stroke in 2013 left him in a hospital for months. Since then he has mostly been seen in brief state television images greeting dignitaries. He was re-elected in 2014 but did not campaign, only voting from a wheelchair on election day.

A canceled visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in February revived speculation about the state of his health. No successor has yet emerged from his supporters.


The FLN and RND benefit from association with Bouteflika and the government's public spending. They also gain from a low turnout as their core supporters among the elderly, public workers and the armed forces are the most likely to vote. In addition, the FLN have a strong party machinery in rural areas.

Many Algerians still see Bouteflika as a symbol of continuity.

But more than half of the population is under 30, and many young people say they have little connection to the rhetoric of their country's leadership.

With the economy largely run by the state, many young Algerians complain there are few opportunities for them.

During campaigning, social media reflected a lack of interest among younger voters. One video by local comedian DZ Joker pulled nearly 4 million views on YouTube with a take on Algeria's social problems entitled "Mansotich" a wordplay on "I will not jump" to refer to voting.

"For five years we don't see congressmen and we have no right to talk to them. Then they ask for our vote? Why should we, it's wrong," said Idir, a student in downtown Algiers.

The collapse of oil prices in mid-2014 has bought new challenges for an economy still mostly state-run, dependent on energy revenues for 60 percent of its budget and reliant on imports because of feeble national production outside energy.

Falling earnings -- state oil company Sonatrach revenues slumped to $27.5 billion in 2016 from $60 billion in 2014 -- have forced the government to cut spending and start the sensitive task of reforming subsidies on cheap fuel and electricity.

Government officials say they want to reform the costly subsidy system but they promise to maintain key benefits that have helped Algeria weather social tensions in the past - including during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)