Algeria’s Islamists were reeling Saturday from a stinging setback in legislative polls which saw the ruling party come out on top, resisting the Arab Spring’s tide of democratic change.
The governing elite in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe’s imported natural gas, had promised reform and a new generation of leaders in response to last year’s upheavals in the region, but the election preserved the status quo.
The regime argued that the results showed Algerians’ desire for stability, at a time when regime change was bringing chaos to other countries, and outright rejection of Islamism, whose rise 20 years ago led to civil war.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) won 220 out of 462 seats up for grabs in Thursday’s legislative elections, improving on its share in the outgoing national assembly.
The seven Islamist parties contesting the polls could only manage a combined 59 seats, a major setback after their predictions of victory during the campaign.
The National Rally for Democracy (RND) of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, a nationalist party close to the military and loyal to Bouteflika, came second with 68 seats, compared to 62 in the outgoing house.
The FLN was the movement which fought for independence from French colonial rule. Ever since, it has been at the heart of a system of power that has left Algerians so skeptical of their views being counted that over half the electorate did not vote.
While the results largely maintain the status quo, one notable change was the number of elected women, which rose to 145 from seven in the outgoing assembly following the introduction of quotas.
Algeria’s outgoing governing coalition included the FLN, the RND and the largest of the legal Islamist parties, the Movement of Society for Peace.
Friday’s provisional results, which have yet to be confirmed by the constitutional council, mean the FLN and the RND could form a majority without the Islamists.
“We’d already experienced Islamism, nobody has forgotten this in Algeria... Voters were looking for security, stability,” political analyst Nourredine Hakiki said.
Allegations of fraud
Green Algeria, a three-party Islamist alliance, garnered a paltry 48 seats and charged widespread fraud.
“There has been large-scale manipulation of the real results announced in the regions, an irrational exaggeration of these results to favor the administration parties,” it said in a statement.
It warned it would take measures in protest.
In the wake of the popular revolts that became known as the Arab Spring, moderate Islamist parties recorded electoral victories in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco.
Ouyahia argued that the Arab Spring was hardly an attractive scenario, calling it a “plague” that had resulted in “the colonization of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt.”
Turnout had been expected to be low after a campaign that produced no new faces and failed to draw crowds.
But Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia announced a “remarkable” rate of 42.36 percent which he said confirmed Algeria’s democratic credentials.
Many Algerians and observers had predicted that ever deeper mistrust, especially among the country’s majority of young people, could lead to an even worse turnout than the historical low of 35 percent recorded in 2007.
The opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy, which chose to boycott this election, claimed the announced turnout was fraudulent and that the real figure “did not exceed 18 percent.”
The Socialist Forces Front, Algeria’s oldest opposition party, garnered only 21 seats and also cried foul, charged the regime has used the election “only to consolidate its power”.
Some 500 foreign observers brought in by Bouteflika to monitor the vote reported only minor hiccups but they were denied access to the national electoral roll, which grew by four million voters since 2007.
Dozens of complaints were filed to the electoral commission however and observers were expected to release more detailed assessments on Saturday and Sunday.
Odd man out
The result leaves Algeria the odd man out in North Africa. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all have had revolutions that ousted autocratic leaders, while Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor to the west, now has an Islamist former opposition leader as its prime minister.
The insurrections in the region last year prompted calls for Algeria to embrace democracy more completely and to refresh an establishment that has run the country without interruption since independence from France in 1962.
Yet it was clear the election was not a clean break from the past. More than half of eligible voters abstained, with many saying they had no faith there would be real change. Seventeen percent of ballots were spoiled or invalid.
Analysts said the low turnout helped the FLN. Its traditional supporters - the elderly, the military, public servants - are the most likely to turn up and vote, while those who could have countered them stayed at home.
Many believe elections are pointless because real power lies with an informal network commonly known by the French term “le pouvoir”, or “the power”, which is unelected, has been around for years and has its roots in the security forces. Officials deny such a network exists.
For now, there is little appetite for a revolt.
The country is still emerging from a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. Few people want any radical change that could tip Algeria back into violence.
But in the longer-term the vote could widen the gulf between Algeria’s ruling establishment and a majority of the people who feel excluded from decisions about how their country is run.
“The outcome of this election is set to increase discontent with the ruling elite, which will continue to pose significant risks to stability,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst with Eurasia Group, a private think-tank.
Algerians who had hoped the “Arab Spring” would lead to reform in their country were scornful of the election.
However, European Union vote monitors said the organization of the vote was satisfactory. “Citizens were, in general, able to truly exercise their right to vote,” said Jose Ignacio Salafranca, head of the EU observer mission.
Within the next few days, Bouteflika, 75, is likely to exercise his prerogative to appoint a new prime minister. The victory makes FLN leader Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who has already served once as prime minister, a leading candidate for the job.
Attention is likely to turn after that to the race to succeed Bouteflika as head of state. He is frail and is not expected to run again when his term ends in 2014.