A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Algiers. (photo by REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Low Voter Turnout in Algeria Alarms Government, Political Parties

Author: El-Khabar (Algeria) Posted January 26, 2012

Voters and ballot boxes have become repulsive forces. A state of alienation, apathy, abstention and boycott [is plaguing the country]. This has prompted the government, political parties, politicians and sociologists to search for the reason behind this loss of ''appetite'' for elections regardless of their type. Rates of participation in the last elections reveal that abstention has become the rule, not the exception. This has prompted the Minister of the Interior, Dahou Ould Kablia, to send text messages to citizens yesterday [January 20, 2012] urging them to vote saying, "I am personally haunted by the electoral (abstention) craze."

SummaryPrint In recent elections, Algerians have largely steered clear of the polls. Voter turnout dipped to 35% in 2007, and as a new round of parliamentary elections approaches, the government and campaigning politicians are working hard to attract citizens back to the voting booths. A team of El-Khabar journalists report.
Author Atef Kedadra, H. Souleiman and Hamid Yassin Posted January 26, 2012
Translator(s)Sami-Joe Abboud

MPs’ Wages Exceed 30 Million [Algerian Dinar] and Prompt ''Collective Punishment'' of Candidates

Ministry of Interior ''Flirts'' with Voters via SMS to Ward Off Specter of [Voter] Abstention

About four months prior to legislative elections, the Ministry of the Interior has entered into a race against time to confront the abstention phenomenon via technology. In fact, yesterday [January 20, 2012] it launched its first awareness campaign to highlight the importance of the elections through millions of text messages sent to Algerians to tell them that ''voting is both an act of citizenship and a duty."

Algerians received […] text messages from the Ministry of the Interior urging them to vote. [This awareness campaign], nearly four months prior to elections, reveals that the ministry is really dreading a "rebellion" against the upcoming elections. [Such a rebellion] reveals the citizens’ non-satisfaction with the political reforms launched by President Bouteflika a year ago, and their opposition to the candidates who belong to the established political parties as well as to new ones.

Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia’s recent restatement of the government’s concerns over citizen abstention from the elections scheduled for next May reveals fears emerging from the government’s [bitter experience] of the 2007 parliamentary elections. In fact, these elections only attracted 35% of the electorate. This ratio has developed a ''complex'' among official bodies, leading them to review the electoral campaigns of the 2009 presidential elections.

The road ahead for the government will [require] it to challenge and convince Algerians of the importance of voting. [It will not be an easy task]. In fact, the parliament’s "weak'' performance over the [last four years] may lead [citizens] to resort to ''collective punishment,” for which the prospective candidates of upcoming parliamentary elections will pay the price. In fact, Algerians had a bad impression of a parliament [with poor recommendations]. Indeed, it was considered non-representative because no more than 35% of the electorate had participated in its [coming to power]. It was further described as ''open to bribery'' by the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), given that it approved fictional MP wage increases [mere] days prior to the amendment of the Constitution. Moreover, it [yielded to the demands] of the government, which turned it into a "recording studio” [for its pronouncements], rather than a legislative authority.

Whereas the government was making efforts to prove to Algerians that the essence of the political game had changed, using political reforms as proof and talking up the new [clean] political parties and the charisma of their leaders, it may still face the "30 million centimes dilemma." This could affect all of the candidates, amidst the general impression that parliament represents the clearest path to wealth. This factor may replace ''individual punishment'' with "collective punishment.'' And even the recent individual performance of some MPs in the opposition will not be able to ward off this [punishment] given a new “value developed within the community,” which openly refuses granting 30 million centimes to MPs who disappear right after being elected and voluntarily turn over their powers to [meet] the government’s [demands].

MPs Lack Interest in Voters; Candidates Chosen Based on [Financial Considerations];
Power Corrupts Pluralism and Disrupts Electoral Process

The upcoming legislative elections are like a football game that loses its momentum if held in an empty stadium, regardless of the reputation of the teams playing. In fact, there is a growing recognition among [ministers] and parties that the abstention obsession is haunting [these elections], regardless of the fact that the next parliament will shape the new constitution, which will regulate the country.

When elections draw near in Algeria, discussions begin about the citizens’ abstention in the elections. This has turned the participation rate into a "phenomenon.'' Consequently, the government and the political parties have to find the roots of this phenomenon, rather than looking for [temporary solutions.] Do Algerians hate, by nature, the "ballot boxes?" Do they have a certain allergy that makes them lose their appetite for elections? Or is it that they are behaving this way to punish the government, the parties and the candidates, who are abiding by Goebbels’ instructions: "Lie and keep lying, even if they do not believe you?"

[The leading figures of the parties] are no longer in charge of selecting candidates for the elections. In fact, [parties] have started taking into account the opinion of party activists while trying to figure out the people's position on specific candidates. In fact, preparing the lists of candidates and appointing the heads of lists have of late become based on [financial considerations], rather than on [the candidate’s] efficiency and sincerity. This reveals the political power's [dependence] on money, which has turned the electoral process from an election of representatives aimed at managing public affairs to a mere selection of people who occupy positions to receive immunity, achieve personal gains and establish businesses completely irrelevant to democratic representation.

The series of events and disorders witnessed by Algeria have [clearly] revealed the gap between citizens on the one hand and MPs elected nationally or locally on the other. In fact, no [protests] have been waged in front of the [workplace] of any MP regardless of their constituency and regardless of the existence of their [work]. This further proves that citizens have no faith in elected MPs. In fact, [elected MPs] are not addressing the public issues plaguing the people. Moreover, the government’s political and media practices as well as the exclusion of the opposition for two decades have led to the corruption of pluralism and the disruption of political life. This has resulted in elected MPs infringing Article 100 of the constitution, which stipulates that “the parliament should, within its constitutional powers, remain faithful to the confidence [placed in them by] the people and remain sensitive to their aspirations." Thus they have become mere guardians of the temple of power instead of listeners to the people's demands since the executive authority took control of legislative and judicial powers. This has negatively impacted the elections, which, for the Algerian people, no longer constitute a means of change and a tool for the peaceful transfer of power, which are the ultimate purposes [of elections]. Instead, [these elections] are designed to impose a fait accompli - the will of the government, not the people.

In Contrast

Gaby Nasser, Expert in Political Sociology tells El-Khabar :
“Key to Solution: Credible Elections Ensuring Peaceful Transfer of Power”
Interviewed by H. Suleiman

El-Khabar  [It’s being called] the “Algerian Abstention Phenomenon.” Why are Algerians abstaining from voting?

Gaby Nasser  People are not always really interested in elections. Some of them do not even register in the electoral lists and [others] prefer to address their daily needs rather than vote, even if they have registered. On the other hand, some show great interest and even run [for elections] or volunteer to work as monitors, etc.

Whereas some express their opposition by boycotting, not voting or casting blank ballots, an in-depth analysis of the Algerian electoral phenomenon reveals that the lack of faith in the elections as a means for peaceful transfer of power is the main reason keeping [Algerians] from voting. In fact, citizens abstain from going to the polls because they often feel that elections [will not achieve their goals] and that the results are determined beforehand. This does not whet their appetites nor encourage them to [go to the polls].

El-Khabar  Is it the authority, the parties or the bad electoral campaigns that is responsible for this abstention?

Gaby Nasser  I do not like the fact that everyone is responsible. However, the duties of the political system distorting the elections are the [reason behind this abstention]. Moreover, parties which do not work throughout the year to recruit citizens are also responsible. This infers that the [elected] parties are working seasonally, and that the elites have unconvincing [policy programs]. These are all factors that fail to stimulate participation. Add to this the "non-transparency" of elections, and [voter fraud], which contribute significantly to abstentions.

El-Khabar  What would make Algerians return to the polls?

Gaby Nasser  Such things have a negative and a positive side. Credibility and transparency are the key to the solution. [Elections] should become a means for the peaceful transfer of power and should reflect the concerns and problems of the people. This is the solution. Any [other suggestion] would be a lie which insults the intelligence of the people .

Dr. Bounia Kawi, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Warfalla University, Tells El-Khabar: "When Confidence is Lacking, a State of Confusion Reigns in the Government"

Interviewed by Hamid Yassin

El-Khabar  Why does the authority fear abstentions?

Bounia Kawi  The authority's fear of abstentions is a historical [phenomenon] which reflects how parliaments deal with thorny issues in all Arab countries. Foremost among these issues is the question of legitimacy. In fact, parliaments derive their legitimacy from the fact that they represent the entire nation and its political conscience. Hence, parliaments emerging from a low rate of electoral votes reveal an important feature, which is a huge gap between the electors and the elected MPs, the ruler and the ruled. In the absence of confidence, parliaments find themselves in a state of confusion and seek in different ways to mobilize various resources to ensure effective political and electoral participation. In other words, abstention would deal a blow to their ongoing projects and can be widely considered a punitive vote.

El-Khabar  Was Abstention in the Last Political Elections the Government or the Parties’ Fault?

Bounia Kawi  The issue is complex, and the facts correlate. The relationship between the two parties is intertwined. Parties have become dead, split and undemocratic political bodies, enabling semi-politicians to bridge the public gap between the power and citizens. Moreover, [parties] were adopting the same rhetoric but with different denominations. Some kept earning their living from the power for years and eventually turned against it in the hope of luring voters. A lot of these parties kept deriving their legitimacy from outdated elements for long decades. They [gave in] to political money, and in so doing became corrupt and sparked the seeds of corruption. For its part, the power is a vague concept, which includes the entire political system. In turn, the power is a part of a system. This explains the need for deep solutions to the problems of the system. A set of reforms has been adopted and the laws governing the political life have been reviewed.

El-Khabar  Do you blame the political programs or the campaigns for abstention?

Bounia Kawi  The problem is that parties are based on people, not programs. People are currently voting for tribe members, not based on clear [electoral] programs. [Electoral] campaigns are not the problem. Why launch [campaigns] if all [parties] have the same programs? Studies on the sociology of elections reveal that the abstention rate increases when elections are not part of the daily concerns of citizens. Then, we must note that citizens are tired of politicians who [uselessly occupy seats in the power] for four years, and [only start showing up] in the political arena during [electoral] campaigns, amidst a great deal of fanfare and noise.

El-Khabar  How do we address this problem, i.e., how do we convince people to participate in the elections in large numbers?

Bounia Kawi  It is very important to nominate sincere people who are convinced of their policies and capable of convincing voters. Hence, the openness of parties to the energies of the young, uncorrupt and non-politicized is a factor which attracts voters. Moreover, the presence of politicians close to citizens is an important factor in politics. [This close relationship] can be built through political work based on socioeconomic alternatives, because nothing concerns the poor more than employment and bread.

Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2012/01/algerians-lose-appetite-for-elec.html

Published Algiers, Algeria Established 1990
Language Arabic Frequency daily

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