The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Algerians head to the polls Thursday. Here’s what to watch.

An Algerian woman casts her ballot paper during the 2014 presidential election. (Mohamed Messara/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Thursday, Algeria will hold elections for the country’s 462-seat National Assembly. The elections are organized on the backdrop of steadily declining participation rates and widespread voter indifference. Voter participation rates in National Assembly elections have fallen steadily over the past 20 years: from 55.7 percent in 1997 to 46.2 percent in 2002 and 35.5 percent in 2007, with a slight increase to 43.1 percent in 2012.

The decline in electoral participation in part reflects a lack of confidence in the National Assembly to meet the pressing political and economic challenges facing Algeria. According to the 2015 Afro Barometer survey, only 31.2 percent of respondents indicated that they trusted or somewhat trusted parliament, while only 29.6 percent of respondents reported to approve or strongly approve of parliament performance. Given the apparent widespread disapproval of Algeria’s National Assembly, and the prospects of a high abstention rate, one might discount tomorrow’s election as a meaningless electoral performance.

But these elections break with past contests in two significant ways. First, unlike previous contests in 2002, 2007 and 2012, no major political formation is calling for a boycott. (Two smaller accredited parties are.) Second, 50 pro-regime and opposition parties and 97 independent lists are working together with the government to bolster voter participation, through public service announcements, campaign speeches, and colorful and innovative get-out-the vote campaigns in villages, towns, and cities and online.

The unprecedented degree of coordination between opposition and pro-regime parties and the government indicates a consensus that Algeria faces significant political and economic challenges in the immediate future. The government will need to implement much-needed economic reforms that will likely modify state expenditures on popular distributional and social welfare programs in unpopular ways. The government hopes that relatively high voter turnout will underscore confidence in its ability to weather the current economic slowdown.

The National Assembly has done little to inspire confidence from Algerians — as a current leader of a parliamentary group recently said, “In the five years of legislature, not a single law that has been adopted has been proposed by pro-government or opposition parties.” A reinvigorated parliament — elected with a broad mandate — could help divert some of the anger that is likely to follow liberalizing reforms.

While the composition of the next National Assembly is unlikely to significantly change — a coalition of the pro-regime parties currently hold and are likely to win a majority of seats — recent constitutional reforms may be an indication that the executive branch is increasingly willing to let ideas from the floor be heard. Indeed, during the campaign Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said that the elections were “an important stage for the edification of institutions following the amendments introduced in the new constitution.”

The National Liberation Front (FLN) and National Rally for Democracy (RND), two major parties in the current presidential coalition, have actively campaigned for high voter turnout, linking participation to the stability of the country. Though allies, the FLN and RND actively fought during the campaign over which party truly represents the programs and spirit of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. For good reason: To both parties, Thursday’s elections are a test of internal strength. Both are likely to be the big winners — but it is widely understood that the party that wins the most seats will have the advantage in the next presidential elections.

Algeria’s opposition parties view the elections as an opportunity to negotiate a future political and economic transition — by reforming the system from within or through a new constituent assembly and the creation Second Republic — a longtime position of the Socialist Forces Front. Underscoring this newfound belief that change is on the horizon, two major opposition parties (the Islamist Movement for the Society of Peace and the Berberist Rally for Democracy and Culture) — that boycotted the last presidential election — decided to participate in this one. Major opposition parties believe high voter turnout is in their favor, and with a greater representation in the legislature, they will be able to force the government to negotiate when engaging economic reform and following the end of Bouteflika’s mandate.

While pro-regime and opposition parties and government alike are calling for massive turnout — the leader of the FLN party predicted more than 50 percent turnout — public opinion surveys and regional trends (see Morocco’s declining turnout rates) indicate a modest level of participation, likely somewhere between levels seen in 2007 (35.5 percent) and 2012 (43.1 percent). Anything lower — though favoring incumbent parties — will be a significant blow to credibility of government, as well as pro-regime and opposition parties.

A symbolically higher participation rate will be viewed as a victory to pro-regime and opposition parties alike. To Algerian voters, however, it is not the level of participation that will matter, but rather how the newly elected body, however politically fragmented between pro-government parties, Leftists, secularists, Berberists or Islamists, can take advantage of recent constitutional reforms to overcome cross-ideological cleavages and negotiate Algeria’s most immediate challenges — encouraging a durable economic development strategy decoupled from hydrocarbons and deepening popular trust in electoral practices.

Robert P. Parks is a political scientist and the founding director of the Centre d’Études Maghrébines en Algérie