Algerians vote in divisive parliamentary elections in ‘climate of repression’

Algerians vote in divisive parliamentary elections in 'climate of repression'

Algerians will vote in parliamentary elections on Saturday as authorities seek to bolster their legitimacy and stamp out a long-running protest movement under what activists say is a “climate of repression”.

Pro-government parties have urged Algerians to actively participate in what they call a “critical vote for the stability of the country”, while opponents decry a “fake election”.

Seven prominent figures from the protest movement were arrested on Thursday, while police were heavily deployed in the capital Algiers on Friday, blocking any bid by the Hirak movement to hold anti-government protests.

About 24 million Algerians are eligible to vote to elect 407 members of the National People’s Assembly for a five-year term.

Polling stations open at 8:00 AM (0700 GMT) and close at 7:00 PM.

Authorities are hoping for a solid turnout, but Hirak has called for a boycott and is demanding a major overhaul of the ruling system ahead of each election.

Those who vote in Africa’s largest country must choose from more than 13,000 candidates, more than half of whom are listed as “independent”.

The head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Said Salhi, has denounced the crackdown that preceded the vote.

The “repressive atmosphere and the restrictions on human rights and freedoms mean that these elections have no democratic value,” Salhi said.

Farida Hamidi, a Hirak activist in Paris, said the elections meant little to young Algerians dreaming of change.

“We reject it all: the president, the parliament, the constitution, everything done by this military junta that has ruled Algeria since 1962 – we want something different,” she said.

‘clamp down’

The Hirak has pushed for a boycott of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in 2019 to force former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after he made a bid for a fifth term.

It came back on the streets in February after a nearly a year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, having also survived a campaign of arrests, presidential elections and a constitutional referendum intended in part to bury it.

But the government stepped up its crackdown on the Hirak last month, blocking protests and arresting hundreds of activists who have defied new restrictions on public gatherings.

At the end of Thursday, leading opposition figure Karim Tabbou, independent journalist Khaled Drareni and the director of a reformist radio station, Ihsane El Kadi, were among the seven people detained.

“These arrests mark a horrifying escalation in the Algerian authorities’ curtailment of the right to freedom of expression and association,” Amnesty International said in a statement, reporting that more than 200 people had been detained in connection with the Hirak movement.

“Instead of rounding up journalists and political opponents in an effort to quell dissent and intimidate members of the Hirak protest movement, Algeria’s authorities should focus on respecting their human rights obligations.”

Old guard and economic woes

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune claims to have responded “in record time” to Hirak’s key demands, but says those still protesting are “counter-revolutionaries” paid by “foreign parties”.

The powerful chief of staff of the armed forces Said Chengriha has warned against any “action aimed at disrupting” the vote.

The protest movement says Tebboune’s past role as prime minister under Bouteflika confirms her story that the old guard, in power since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, maintains a firm grip on power.

Established parties linked to Bouteflika’s rule – the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (RND) – are expected to lose seats, be discredited and blamed for the political and economic crisis in Algeria.

Islamist parties are also trying to take advantage of the Hirak boycott to increase their representation – but with their votes split among five rival parties, they may struggle to make any real profit.

Africa’s fourth-largest economy is heavily dependent on oil revenues and struggles with an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent, the World Bank said.

It has also been hit hard by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 3,500 lives in the country, according to the health ministry.