There's little sign of the Arab Spring in Algeria. The ruling parties won the recent election handily, with Islamists a distant third.
Isabelle Werenfels cannot believe it. Not long ago, the researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs visited Algeria, and to her horror realized that nothing had changed. "It just can't be true that the Arab Spring has passed over a country without leaving a trace," she said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Algeriahas voted, and nothing has changed. As always, the National Liberation Front (FLN) of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was the clear winner. Bouteflika has been in office since 1999. Together with the RND, the party of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the mildly conservative FLN earned a comfortable absolute majority in parliament, which anyway is largely powerless. The Islamists ended up relegated to third place.
Subtle manipulation of election
The opposition expected a much better result and is talking about election fraud. The German peace and conflict researcher Werner Ruf agrees. Speaking to Deutsche Welle, he said the high turnout in the sparsely populated south of the country is suspicious. "There is no accurate monitoring there. There probably was tampering."
Werenfels also thinks fraud was possible. She observed irregularities in Algeria even before the election: "If the FLM held a campaign event, then the entire civil service was shut down and the employees were brought there." But for opposition events, they had to stay at work. "There are subtle mechanisms; it doesn't always have to be the fake ballot box."
No real alternative in sight
But Werenfels is convinced that this kind of manipulation would not have been necessary. The trend remained the same even without electoral fraud. "There has been a tremendous de-politicization. If you talk to people, they say, 'We have no influence, they do what they want anyway.'"
This is supported by the overall low voter turnout. Of the 22 million eligible voters in Algeria, only 10 million people cast their votes, because there was no real alternative standing for election. The Islamist parties that ran in the election had already previously made common cause with the regime, Ruf said. "They already had ministerial posts, and have come to terms with the corrupt system. That's why they could not channel the Islamist protest."
The trauma of the civil war
The only Islamic party with a chance of success could not compete: the Islamic Salvation Front. This party was poised to win the 1991 elections. But then the army intervened and civil war began, claiming the lives of 100,000-200,000 Algerians. This trauma is felt even today.
"The Arab Spring is déjà vu for the Algerian people," Werenfels said. In the late 1980s, there were youth unrest and uprisings in Algeria. The elite was divided into reformers and reform opponents. The reformers won the day and promised democracy and a new constitution. But the free elections ended in the civil war between the military and Islamists.
The Arab Spring bogeyman
The government is now playing with this reemerging concern, Werenfels said. "The Arab Spring was portrayed in Algerian media as a wave of destabilization, with arms smuggling, violence, more terrorism and bloodshed." Algerians therefore preferred stability, even when they complained about many things. "Very little of the oil state's wealth comes to benefit the population, the country is incredibly poorly managed, the corruption is very high," she said. "But people have also learned that it can be even worse."
Moreover, in recent years President Bouteflika has learned how to make shrewd promises: a revision of the constitution, residential construction projects. He also removed the ban on many political parties, but they represented no real danger for him because they just split the opposition further. Bouteflika ended the 19-year state of emergency and raised lots of wages, using the oil revenues of the state. Werenfels describes this as him indirectly buying the people's favor.
No nationwide protests
Opponents of Bouteflika and the military government have also not understood how to combine their protests, Ruf said. "There is a tremendous amount of momentum at the local level. Hardly a day passes without strikes or road blockades, but it is not possible to organize this on a countrywide basis." Werenfels added: "The demonstrations were always very fragmented. They were always individual occupational groups, none of which mixed with the others." And so no real momentum was able to develop, she says.
Ruf says this will not change, even if Bouteflika leaves office: "He is a mere puppet. The military will conjure up an alternative out of a hat, because it has the real power. Bouteflika and the parliament are only figureheads." In the 50-year history of Algerian independence, all its presidents were military men.
Pulling the strings in the background
Ruf says it is difficult to see exactly who pulls the strings. Werenfels also believes that there are different power centers "that do not operate within the formal political institutions." But she believes in the possibility of change, if Bouteflika decides not to run in 2014. That's because the president has been the face of stability over the past few years.
It is difficult to attack the system, Werenfels said: "Algeria is very conservative, and the FLN party has a strong wing supporting conservative values, which is next to impossible to distinguish from the Islamist parties in its socio-political vision." This is in marked contrast to Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began, she said.
"Everything has been turned around," Werenfels said: Algeria, which was long considered to be unstable, is, ironically, now the anchor of stability in the region.
Author: Klaus Jansen / sgb
Editor: Spencer Kimball