Diminishing Returns: Algeria's 2002 Legislative Elections

Multiparty parliamentary elections are a comparatively recent innovation in Algeria, and in each instance to date the outcome has been overshadowed by the process that preceded or followed it. The first, held at the end of 1991, were cancelled before the second round of voting had taken place. The parliament, which would otherwise have been dominated by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), never came into being and Algeria went through a period of overtly unconstitutional rule dominated by the army commanders. In June 1997, Algerians elected their first multiparty National Popular Assembly (APN) since the country?s independence in 1962. However, the parliament?s legitimacy was marred from the outset by serious allegations of vote-rigging and other electoral manipulation. Algerians returned to the polls on 30 May 2002, after the term of that parliament expired. This time the elections were marked by a high abstention rate (over 50 per cent of the registered voters). In short, one might be tempted to conclude that in 1991 Algerians voted but their votes were negated; in 1997 they voted but their votes were rigged; and in 2002 they simply did not vote. However, the 2002 elections carry a deeper significance, in terms of: * Popular attitudes, a mixture of displeasure, apathy and, in the case of Kabylia, the largely Berber region which is the country?s most troubled, even rage; * Re-composition of the political space, with resurgence of the former single party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), collapse of the previously dominant Democratic National Rally (RND), endurance of an Islamist current in the form of Djaballah?s Movement for National Reform, and emergence of the Workers? Party at the head of the ?secular-democratic? opposition; and * The future course of Algeria?s policy. In many ways, Algeria is at a critical juncture: Islamist-inspired and other forms of violence that raged throughout the 1990s have been partially subdued, but attacks by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) still claim around 100 victims a month. Economic reforms that received international plaudits so far have failed to improve living standards and have cost more jobs than they have created. The return of ostensibly democratic institutions, most notably the outgoing parliament elected in 1997, disappointed expectations both in terms of origins, marred by allegations of vote-rigging, and track record, marked by an almost total lack of influence over governmental actions. In short, Algeria has yet to recover fully from the decision to cancel the elections in 1991-1992 and the ensuing war that has been civil in name only. The country?s rulers must overcome a decade of continuing violence, political fragmentation and a significant gap between themselves and their citizens. Against this backdrop, Algeria?s leaders and political parties (in power and in opposition alike) face the daunting task of recapturing the confidence of ordinary Algerians. This will require, above all, a greater focus on the everyday challenges they face and an ability to translate reform programs from theory into practice. Unless they can achieve this, the political elites will have gained only a poisoned chalice. This briefing paper examines the background and results of the elections and looks at what they might mean in terms of Algeria?s efforts to end its ten-year crisis. It will be followed by more extensive reporting on Algeria?s domestic situation and the situation in Kabylia.