/ 16 May 2007

Algeria concerned over low voter turnout

On the eve of only its third multiparty parliamentary election, there is concern in Algeria that too few citizens will bother to go out Thursday to cast their ballots.

The outcome is forecast to favour a trio of political parties in the 389-seat National People’s Assembly allied with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who since 1999 has wielded real power in North Africa’s biggest nation.

But with little apparent enthusiasm among the 18,3-million registered voters for what is little more than an emasculated talking shop — and in a maturing political culture tainted in the past by fraud — politicians seem more worried by a low turnout than by the result.

”Democracy cannot be created if one turns his back on the ballot box,” Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem told said in the capital, Algiers, which was shaken on April 11 by three suicide car bombings that killed 30 people.

”Choosing between political parties and programmes is not just a civic act, but a way to deepen democracy,” added Belkhadem, from the National Liberation Front (FLN) party.

Forty-eight hours before polls were to open, Bouteflika — at 70 the subject of widespread speculation about his health and political future — staged a high-profile visit to the eastern Mediterranean city of Annaba.

Several thousand cheering Algerians lined the streets on Tuesday to welcome him. He reciprocated by kissing and shaking hands with many of the well-wishers, as if to signal that he remains fully in charge.

Presidential elections are not due before 2009, and while Bouteflika cannot seek a third term, no one has ruled out amending the Constitution in the coming months to enable him to do just that.

Bouteflika is credited with bringing an end to violent Islamist unrest, which claimed an estimated 150 000 lives in the 1990s, through a policy of national reconciliation and amnesty for extremists.

Since the April 11 bombings, claimed by the North African wing of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, the security forces have redoubled operations in the countryside against ”terrorists”, diplomats say, with several deaths reported daily in the press in Algiers.

Keeping a lid on such extremism is a major concern for the United States and European Union, which see a democratic and prospering Algeria as a lynchpin of regional security.

”Algerians are resigned to an element of extremism for some time to come,” a Western diplomat in Algiers told Agence France-Presse. ”The state has considerable means to deal with it.”

Algeria’s economy has been enjoying an upswing, with 4% growth in GDP terms last year, thanks to oil and gas exports, mainly across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Unemployment is at 12,5% and falling.

Travelling with the president to Annaba on Tuesday, Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni acknowledged that ”parliamentary elections don’t pull many people” in contrast to presidential polls, which are ”always exceptional”.

”There are several conditions which determine turnout — the general atmosphere in the country and the quality of the candidates,” Zerhouni told reporters.

He added that the Algiers bombings, which notably targeted the prime minister’s headquarters, ”cannot in any way influence the process of national reconciliation”. — Sapa-AFP