ALGIERS – Algerians voted for a new parliament Saturday in an election with a majority of novice independent candidates running under new rules meant to erase political corruption and open the way to a “new Algeria.” But the turnout was dismal for the first legislative election since the gas-rich North African nation's longtime president was forced to resign two years ago.
Tension surrounded the voting as activists and opposition parties boycotted the election amid a crackdown on weekly marches by the Hirak protest movement, which were all but banned under new rules for demonstrations.
Pressure from Hirak marchers forced former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in 2019 after two decades in office, a time marked by rampant political and financial corruption, unemployment and repression. Participants in the protest movement now want a transition period before elections.
In its most recent update, given while polls still were open, Algeria's electoral authority said that less than 14.5% of the country's 24 million voters had cast ballots. Some regions, notably in Kabylie, a bastion of opposition east of the Algerian capital, had voter turnout under 1%. Some voting stations were vandalized, and scuffles between residents and police were reported in some towns in the region.
The turnout figures “aren't trafficked like in the past where numbers were fixed in advance,” the head of the electoral authority, Mohamed Charfi, said, adding that the new transparency “gives credibility to this election, part of the wish to break with the old system."
The final turnout was not immediately available after polls closed at 8 p.m. local time.
Authorities began tightening the screws on the Hirak movement weeks ago with dozens of arrests and a rule obliging organizers of the marches without real leaders to declare them. Three prominent figures arrested Thursday, including two journalists — one was press freedom advocate Khaled Drareni — were released early Saturday ahead of the voting.
The Constitutional Council announced Saturday that it would be 15 days before results of the balloting are known because of the number of candidates and the need to ensure against the fraud that marked past elections.
“We are looking for change,” voter Mohammed Touait said at a polling station. “I am 84 years old, and today I woke up at 8 a.m. because I still have hope for change.”
The election was supposed to exemplify President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s “new Algeria,” with an emphasis on young candidates and those outside the political elite. A huge number of candidates — more than 20,000 — ran for the 407-seat parliament, once dominated by a two-party alliance considered unlikely to maintain its grip on the legislature. Islamist parties all offered candidates.
Tebboune was elected eight months after Boutflika was forced out. He vowed to remake Africa's largest country but with no sign of abandoning the shadowy role of the army in governance.
The president, at the start of the day, brushed off as irrelevant the number of people who vote.
“What is important is that those the people vote for have sufficient legitimacy,” Tebboune said after casting his ballot in Algiers.
The president also brushed off boycotts by the main opposition parties and Hirak supporters.
“These elections are another stage on the path to change and the construction of a new Algeria,” with sovereignty for the people, Tebboune said. “I respect the position of those who decided to boycott the elections, but they do not have the right to impose by force their viewpoint on others.”
Women made up half of the candidates for the first time. But women were largely invisible from the campaign — their faces often blurred or concealed in campaign posters.
Candidates had just 20 days to campaign, and Algerian media said real debate on major issues of concern, like unemployment, was mostly absent.
“With such a slew of candidates, the calculation of power is simple: to elect a patchwork assembly, without a majority, which will allow the president to create his own parliamentary majority with which he will govern,” political scientist Rachid Grime said.
Many candidates couldn’t afford campaign posters. Independent candidates like Djamel Maafa, a former TV producer, used social networks to spread their messages, lacking access to the funds and logistical structure of big parties.
“Elections in Algeria have always proved that they are not the solution. The solution lies in democratic transition. It also lies in a dialogue around a table in order to solve the crisis,” activist Sofiane Haddadji said.