Agence France Presse
ALGIERS: Algerians go to the polls Thursday to elect a new Parliament amid concerns that a low turnout will mar a vote which officials say is necessary to maintain stability.
The election comes as the North African country grapples with a deep financial crisis because of a drop in oil revenues and amid criticism from people who say the government has failed to keep its promises.
In a video uploaded on YouTube days before polling day on May 4 and seen by more than 2 million people, one Algerian said government vows to solve an acute housing shortage and improve health care have not been kept.
A total of 12,000 candidates are standing for 462 seats in the People’s National Assembly, with a registered electorate of 23 million.
Throughout the election campaign officials urged people to vote “massively,” saying Algeria’s “stability” was at stake, and urged mosque prayer leaders to relay this message to worshippers.
Ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a 2013 stroke impaired his speech and mobility, set the tone on the eve of the vote. In a statement read on his behalf Saturday he called for a strong turnout, saying it was essential to contribute to “the stability of the country.”
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal urged those angry about the state of the economy “to be patient.”
“There is no more money” in state coffers, he admitted in a speech Saturday, media reported.
In 2011, high oil revenues allowed huge rises in wages and subsidies, helping Algeria to weather the Arab Spring.
But in 2014, the collapse in crude oil prices forced the government to increase taxes and mothball many public projects.
In a country of 40 million, half of them aged under 30, one young person in three is unemployed.
Despite brisk lobbying by Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) party and its coalition ally, the Rally for National Democracy, the campaign failed to fascinate.
Media reports said people were more interested in the presidential election in former colonial power France, where centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen face off Sunday.
“France is having an election in which the political stakes are high, while here in Algeria there are no stakes at all,” sociologist Nacer Djabi said.
Media and analysts expect few surprises Thursday.
The FLN, which has ruled Algeria under a single-party system from independence in 1962 until the early 1990s, will keep its majority in Parliament along with the RND, political analyst Cherif Driss said.
In the 2012 election, the FLN won 221 seats and the RND 70 in the 462-seat national assembly.
Islamists, who hold 60 seats in the outgoing Parliament, represent the country’s main opposition force.
In 2012, a year after Arab Spring-inspired street protests, Islamists had hoped to replicate the gains of their peers in Egypt and Tunisia, but instead suffered their worst ever electoral defeat. This year, they have formed two major coalitions in an attempt to do better.
Other contenders include the Rally for Hope in Algeria (TAJ), a new Islamist party led by former public works minister and fierce Bouteflika supporter Amar Ghoul.
The secular Rally for Culture and Democracy boycotted polling in 2012 but is hoping to take seats from its rival, the Front of Socialist Forces.
Experts say Algerian elections generally fail to attract a high turnout, which in 2012 was 43.14 percent, slightly more than the 35.65 percent registered in 2007.
Even those figures, they say, were inflated.