Algeria's elections: a silent victory for the national 'Hirak' protest movement

Algeria's recent elections were billed by the government as a chance for a 'new Algeria'

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Last weekend's parliamentary elections have secured Algeria's leading party, the Front de Libération Nationale, (FLN) the most seats in parliament, with the Islamist, Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix, (MSP) coming in second.

President Tebboune had his own interpretation of how things were going to shape up

However, with only 105 seats of the 407 seat chamber secured, the FLN have fallen short of the 204 seats required for an overall majority.

Negotiations must now begin to form a government capable of commanding a majority with opposition parties, including the MSP, who won 64 seats, with the country's independents gaining 78 seats collectively.

Despite their Islamist credentials and Muslim Brotherhood affiliation, the MSP are far from political outliers. Until 2012 the MSP had governed Algeria as part of a political triumvirate alongside the FLN and the Rassemblement National Démocratique, (RND) and, at least among civil society groups, are widely seen as part of the established political cadre.

Algeria's legislative elections had initially been slated for 2022. However, following pressure brought on by the mass protest movement, or Hirak, that have roiled the country since 2019, they were brought forward in February of this year.

Protesters had returned to the streets following a months' long hiatus brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Algeria's President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune had pitched the vote as a reaction to the initial demands of the leaderless Hirak, claiming a mandate to build a "new Algeria" after years of political and economic stagnation.

Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune (C) arrives with his wife (L) at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of Algeria's capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021 during the 2021 parliamentary elections. Polls opened in Algeria for a parliamentary election overshadowed by a crackdown on a long-running protest movement that has campaigned for a mass boycott. Pro-government parties have urged a big turnout for the "crucial vote" which they hope will restore stability after two years of turmoil since the forced resignation of veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI

Announcing the results last night, the head of the electoral body, the Autorité nationale indépendante des élections (ANIE) Mohamed Chorfi said, "The dynamic of peaceful change that was launched (with the hirak) is being strengthened.”

However, any claims of a broad democratic mandate for the new government will likely be undercut by a participation rate of just 30.2 per cent, itself subject to question following an unexplained surge in voter numbers as polling stations were set to close.

Nevertheless, disregarding the accuracy of the tally, this remains the lowest turnout in any legislative vote for twenty years with many of the country's principal opposition parties boycotting the vote.

This is the third nationwide poll to be held by President Tebboune since assuming office in December 2019, none of which have garnered the kind of participation as had been hoped for.

President Tebboune's own election involved less than 40 per cent of the population, the lowest turnout since the country gained independence in 1962. A subsequent referendum in November of last year drew less than a quarter of the population.

The Hirak endures 

Regardless of its shrinking numbers, the Hirak remains the dominant force in Algeria's street politics. Looking to the increased militancy of the protesters, some observers – seemingly including both the leader of the MSP, Abderrazak Makri and President Tebboune , believed the movement was a sign of growing sympathy towards political Islamism.

In the build up to the election, President Tebboune, an independent, gave high profile interviews to both Al Jazeera and the French magazine, Le Point, where he appeared amenable to working alongside an Islamist Prime Minister.

Speaking on Sunday, before being contradicted by ANIE, Mr Makri congratulated voters on their choice, before warning against attempts to reverse the results, as he claimed had happened under Algeria's previous President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

"I think President Tebboune had his own interpretation of how things were going to shape up and essentially bet on an Islamist Prime Minister," Jalel Harchaoui at Global Initiative said. "If that had worked out well, Tebboune could have renewed his legitimacy while remaining above it all as president."

For Mr Harchaoui, attempting to read the runes of the leaderless Hirak was always destined to prove an exercise in futility.

"It's predominantly a spontaneous movement driven by grievances," he said, "Islamists enjoy a form of sympathy among some strands of Hirak, it's true, but they're not the Hirak."

Nevertheless, the relative victory of the FLN has contradicted such hopes and – surrounded by a closed clique of army officers, trade unionists and business people – has highlighted the potential vulnerability of Algeria's President.

Mr Harchaoui recalled the lengthy period of time earlier this year when President Tebboune was admitted to hospital in Germany with Coronavirus.

"President Tebboune was out of circulation for a while and nothing really happened," Mr Harchaoui said, "so, that means Algeria either has a great political system that can continue to function perfectly on the strength of a few phone calls between a sick president and the army, or that President Tebboune is in fact politically isolated in the greater scheme of things. I mean, a few foreign policy decisions were delayed, but that was about it."

In the short term, however, it will be the voice of the Hirak that renders judgement on last weekend's legislative elections.

Questions remain over how long a leaderless movement, galvanised predominantly by grievance and a sense of injustice can continue in its current form. Whatever might take its place remains to be seen.