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Will Algerians Rise Up Against Their Crooked Election System?

Algerian elections are pretty obviously not fair, and everybody already knows the results of today's election.

by Rebecca Suner
Apr 17 2014, 10:00pm

Image via Barakat

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Algerians are voting for their president today, but everybody already knows the results. Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win a fourth term as head of state, thanks to the powerful backing of the regime and despite his contested track record and the frail condition he's been in since suffering a stroke in 2013.

The 77-year-old, who has been clinging on to power since 1999, has been able to count on the support of his political party, the National Liberation Front (FLN) — a former guerrilla group that fought off France during the war of independence in the 1950s. He is one of six presidential candidates, and the campaign has been marked by his absence. When he made a rare TV appearance in March, Bouteflika’s movements seemed impaired and his voice was barely audible.

Algerian elections are pretty obviously not fair. The last time around, in 2009, Bouteflika was re-elected with a suspiciously high 90 percent share of the vote. Officially, 74 percent of registered voters cast ballots, but according to a cable from the American embassy that was later released by WikiLeaks, participation was more likely around 25 percent.

Rare Algerian dissent faced a government crackdown. Read more here.

Nevertheless, Bouteflika and his partystill enjoy a fairly wide support base. On Sunday, thousands of people gathered in a stadium in the capital of Algiers to cheer for an absent Bouteflika on the last stop of his lackluster campaign tour. The president is seen by some as having restored stability following the "Black Decade" in the 1990s, a bloody civil war that was triggered by the cancellation of an election set to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front. Ten years of violence followed, with fighting between the national army and Islamist guerrilla groups claiming around 150,000 lives.

Every Algerian above the age of 15 has experienced living in a war-torn country, which may help explain why people haven't risen up against the dictatorship—maybe they can't bear the thought of yet more chaos.

Nevertheless, opposition is growing. During the 21-day campaign, opposition groups called for a boycott of the election, with small sit-ins and actions taking place across the country and in the capital of Algiers, where a blanket ban on protests remains in place. The newly-formed group Barakat ("Enough") has been particularly active in opposing the regime.

"We need to go toward a transition phase so that institutions are real institutions, not support committees for the system and the presidency," Nerouane Bounezoud, a member of Barakat, told me. "We want more democracy, more civil rights, more political and social freedoms, and real social justice."

Barakat’s first gatherings in early March were violently dispersed by security forces, and dozens of demonstrators were arrested. In a report issued on Monday, Amnesty International condemned the crackdown on peaceful opposition protests. That report wasn't much help, however: Bounezoud told me that during Barakat’s final pre-election gathering yesterday, he and fellow protesters had been "beaten up" by police.

Amine Mouffok, an Algerian expat who's lived in London for 13 years, is part of the Algerian Solidarity Campaign, which organized a small protest outside the Algerian embassy in London on Saturday, calling on fellow Algerians all over the world to boycott the vote. He thinks that these elections are pointless.

"They will not solve the fundamental political deadlock that the country has been facing for a long time now, nor will they solve the Algerian people's problems," he explained. "The regime is trying to force through a president who is not capable of governing anymore, given his serious illness. He shouldn’t even be in office, let alone run for president again."

Bouteflika amended the constitution in 2008 in order to be able to run for a third consecutive term in 2009. In fact, Abdelmalek SellalBouteflika’s former prime minister and campaign director — hinted last month that the president wants to die "as a martyr" in office.

"The Algerian community is somewhat divided. Some think Bouteflika got us out of a civil war and relaunched our economy. For [Barakat], that’s a fallacy," Mouffok said. "But it’s also true that Algerians don’t want to go back to a civil war… so they’re being cautious. Some other factors have contributed to this lack of appetite for change of sorts, notably the regime’s use of the oil rent to buy peace and quell social unrest."

Barakat protesters in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria. Photo courtesy of Barakat

In contrast to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Algeria stayed relatively calm during the Arab Spring, despite experiencing many localized riots and protests against high unemployment, job insecurity, and the rising cost of living. According to Mouffok, there were around 10,000 or 11,000 of these protests in 2010 and 2011.

In an attempt to placate the protesters, Bouteflika lifted of the state of emergency that had been in place for 19 years and passed new laws allowing more freedom of expression. Despite this, Amna Guellali, the Tunisia office director of Human Rights Watch, told me that "in 2013 and 2014, authorities continued to restrict freedom of assembly and association, prohibiting meetings and protests." Corruption also remains rife: Transparency International this year ranked Algeria 94th out of 177 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

"Algerian youth, in particular, generally express themselves outside of the institutional and political framework, basically in the street," said Mouffok. "But the core of the problem is political. The youth in particular is increasingly realizing that supporting a regime that is illegitimate and corrupt has a damaging effect on the socio-economical situation of the country and on theirs directly."

This past week’s protests have brought on both new hope and new fear for Algeria’s future. "The people still have a bit of fear," Nerouane of Barakat said, "but I think we will catalyze the drive for the change that we need in order to get a real democracy and a parliament that represents the people."

Whether opposition groups can gather enough momentum to oust Bouteflika and reform his outdated regime now depends on whether Algerians want to turn widespread disaffection into action, or if they’re still petrified from the memories of past conflicts.

Follow Rebecca Suner on Twitter: @becksunyer

Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Algerian Solidarity Campaign
National Liberation Front