Algeria’s New Parliament: A Buffer Against Revolt

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Members of a local dance troupe perform during a visit by Algeria President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the commemoration of the Algerian war of independence during May 1945, in Setif 8 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Louafi Larbi)

By: Mourad Traboulsi

Published Thursday, May 10, 2012

Around 26,000 candidates will run for the 462 seats that will make up the new Algerian parliament. While the authorities are promising fair elections, indications are that there will be no room for a strong opposition to the regime.

Algiers - This time might be different.That’s the atmosphere today as Algerians head to the ballot boxes to vote in a new parliament. Although Algeria has not seen any serious reforms internally, the regional and international context has shifted to a large extent. The Arab uprisings that started at the end of 2010 are but one example.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has made six appearances since calling for elections three months ago. He has repeatedly asked Algerians to participate in the elections while assuring them that the announced results will reflect what is in the ballot boxes.

He promised that the judiciary will completely oversee the elections for the first time in the history of the country, without pressure from any side. This pledge was echoed hundreds of times during electoral campaigns by government figures and various party leaders.

Political forces, including the traditional ones who are in power, hope that the elections will lead to change this time around. Some have declared that any mistake might lead the country to a new unnecessary conflict after it finally surpassed a tragedy that cost around 200,000 lives in the ten years of fighting in the 1990s.

The upcoming parliament will face several urgent matters to avoid falling into chaos. The first of these tasks will be drafting a new constitution, the fifth since independence in 1962.

The new constitution is part of Bouteflika’s political reforms introduced last year to keep away the flames of the Arab uprisings. He later postponed the initiative and left it for the new legislators as the outgoing parliament was facing a wave of criticism.

Another priority is drafting detailed laws that would reinforce media and political freedoms. This should start by removing certain articles in the penal code, which allow the government to jail journalists for years. The laws also allow certain authorities to shut down newspapers and ban associations.

Interior Minister Dahho Weld Qabliya, whose ministry supervises the organizational and security matters of the electoral process, asserted that the new parliament will be a new “constituent assembly.”

It will create new laws to replace old ones, just like what happened in other Arab countries, where the angry masses succeeded in toppling the regimes, especially in Tunisia and Egypt.

But these “good intentions” on the part of the regime hinge on the election results that will be announced on Friday morning.

Almost all predictions exclude the possibility of one party or bloc receiving a majority in the new parliament.

It is believed that the incoming parliament will be a mosaic of representatives from 26 to 28 parties, instead of the 21 in parliament today. Participation is expected to be very high and the number of MPs has been raised from 389 to 462.

The political and security wings of the regime seem to want a parliament made up of weak and fragmented political minorities. The legislative body would fill a legitimate institutional space but without being able to affect public policy.

It can propose limited reforms that do not upset the fundamental powers of the regime, such as the role of the military establishment in determining politics.

Even during electoral campaigning, nobody dared to speak about such issues, with the exception of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the most radical party participating in elections.

In public rallies and media statements, its candidates promised that they will push the parliament to reduce the role of the army in politics. But the FFS’s representation in the incoming assembly will not be strong enough to push through such changes.


The Islamists’ Prospects

The Movement of Society of Peace (Muslim Brotherhood) announced the nomination of current public works minister Omar Ghoul to head the next government, in case the Green Algeria Bloc led by the ruling majority wins today’s elections.

Ghoul was nominated by the movement as one of its most prominent cadres. His campaign was the largest as he held rallies and made dozens of statements about the coalition’s program, promising personal meetings with citizens.

Green Algeria expects to win the current elections although it only received 800,000 votes in the 2007 round, divided up among the three parties that make up the bloc — Society of Peace, Al-Nahda, and Al-Islah.

On the other hand, leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic Gathering — the party of prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia — took turns in a show of force.

They stressed that “the Algerian people will not choose something they will regret again,” alluding to the choice of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1991, which lead to a devastating civil war.

The Justice and Development Front led by Sheikh Abdullah Gaballah could become the largest Islamist party after the elections.

Gaballah refused to join the Green Algeria Bloc because he was not appointed as its head and decided to run independently, which will give him more space for negotiations in the formation of a new government.

If the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Omar Ghoul does not become prime minister, the position will go to Ahmed Ouyahia or to the new general secretary of the FLN.

The latter will be appointed at the end of this month to succeed Abdelaziz Belkhadem, regardless of the outcome of the elections.

Political reforms announced last year forced the president to give up his authority to unilaterally appoint a prime minister.

He is now bound to appointing a prime minister from the majority chosen by the electorate, whether a party, bloc, or slate.

The Islamists are hoping that this will allow them to lead the government, like in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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