Algeria’s parties prepared their final rallies ahead of the May 10 legislative polls Sunday, after the Arab Spring sweeping the region failed to bring new faces to the campaign and spark the electorate.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s camp defended a package of cautious reforms initiated to contain revolutionary contagion, while the main Islamist alliance hoped to benefit from their counterparts’ gains in the region.
As the three-week campaign wrapped up, the North African country’s 21.6 million voters seemed underwhelmed by the choice of 44 parties.
Except for billboards plastered with ripped campaign posters, there were few signs in the streets of Algiers of the imminence of a vote Bouteflika has billed as “the dawn of a new era”.
The country’s top-selling daily Echorouk carried a front-page picture of a deserted street corner littered with campaign leaflets and this headline: “Everyone was there... except the citizens.”
Algeria’s leading French-language newspaper El Watan splashed a huge picture and headline on its front page... on the French election, relegating the Algerian polls to page 5.
In the daily Liberte, Algeria’s top cartoonist Dilem depicted one man asking another as they walked past the campaign posters for the May 10 vote: “So, who do you support, Sarko or Hollande?”
Turnout in the 2007 parliamentary polls slumped to a record low of 35 percent, according to official figures, and there was no sign Algerians would show more interest this year.
The secretary general of Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, told AFP this week he would be satisfied if 45 percent of voters cast a ballot, but some observers say official figures may conceal a projected turnout of less than 20 percent.
The regime has tried to assuage fears of fraud by inviting some 500 foreign election observers -- including from the EU -- but Algeria is Africa’s largest country, four times the size of France, and few voters seem convinced.
A European diplomat told AFP Sunday that the observation mission was still awaiting a copy of the voters’ roll, despite repeated requests.
The National Liberation Front, formerly the lone party, is under unprecedented strain, with rebels seeking to oust Belkhadem and sights firmly on the 2014 presidential election, after which Bouteflika, now 75, is widely expected to step down.
“I don’t think any party can approach a majority alone.... The seats will be scattered between the parties,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said last month. The national assembly is being extended from 389 to 462 seats.
The FLN, which has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly, currently sits in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace, the country’s main legal Islamist party.
Speaking at a rally on Saturday, Ouyahia said Algeria’s stability needed to be preserved and criticized voices calling for an Arab Spring-style revolt.
“It isn’t an Arab Spring which is sweeping the region but a plague, and there is confirmation of this every day,” he said, citing “the colonization of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt.”
The MSP and two allied parties hope they can cash in on the so-called “Green wave” that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.
But many observers argue that the Arab Spring scenario of Islamist parties rising to power cannot be replicated in Algeria.
The Islamists are already in power -- they have four government posts -- denting their credibility among what would be their natural electorate.
Many Algerians also argue that the country has already had its Arab Spring when Islamists won the first round of the 1991 election following the end of the one-party system.
The army interrupted the vote and launched a crackdown, sparking a brutal civil war that left around 200,000 people dead and scars that are still raw ten years after the end of the conflict.