In Algeria, a status quo vote

Al Qaeda attacks last month have not altered the likely result of Thursday's parliamentary election.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The man heading the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party's campaign leans back comfortably on a leather couch in the party offices and shakes his head with a smile.

That's Amar Friha's answer when asked if he sees any real challenges to the power of the FLN (known by its French initials) from other parties running in Thursday's parliamentary election. To illustrate his point, he holds up a campaign pamphlet featuring a rose. The slogan reads "You can cut one flower but you can't stop the spring."

"This is the FLN. They will never be able to cut the rose. It will be spring everyday," he says of the party's power and its message of unity with the public after terrorist bombings last month directed at the heart of the FLN-run government.

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Some analysts see Algeria's election as a small democratic step forward for a country still shaking off the effects of a brutal civil war in the 1990s sparked when the Army canceled legislative elections that an Islamic party appeared set to win. The subsequent fighting, which left more than 200,000 dead, has mostly receded. But some insurgents have joined – or renamed themselves – Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa and claimed responsibility for the April 11 double suicide bombings in Algiers, which hit the prime minister's office and a police station.

Some political analysts welcome Thursday's elections as a way to improve security by giving opposition groups a way to voice dissent and criticize the government. But the FLN's continued dominance also means there is limited ability for opposition groups to influence the ruling party's agenda or act as a check on its power, which is being consolidated around the executive branch, analysts say. So, turnout is expected to be low.

"The way Algerians understand the system, and the way they respond to it, is 'the fix is in' so 'why bother,'" says John Entelis, a North Africa expert at Fordham University in New York. "Anyone that could seriously challenge [the FLN] is banned or co-opted sufficiently."

Mr. Entelis predicts that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is from the FLN, will win a base of compliant members of parliament, who will approve amendments to the constitution sought by to lengthen his term in office. An amnesty law passed last year that grants broad immunity to government security forces as well as Islamist groups from the civil war has also made it illegal to criticize the government or the president.

So Mr. Friha's confidence appears justified. The FLN currently has 199 of the 389 seats in the National People's Assembly. The next two largest parties in the lower house have less than 50 seats each. They are also already on board with Mr. Bouteflika's agenda. While the election includes an array of parties from socialist to Islamist, analysts say the election is one more step in a systematic consolidation of power in the executive branch since Bouteflika won reelection in 2004. It may also pave the way for approval of constitutional amendments Bouteflika proposed that will extend his time in office.

While there is a diversity of opposition parties with government approval to run, most are too small to pose a real challenge, like the Rally for Culture and Democracy which currently has one seat.

"The problem in Algeria is with the administration. It's easy to have a good campaign and difficult to have good results," says Said Sadi, head of the political party which supports the rights of Algeria's native Berber community. Mr. Sadi says electoral officials have told him they received calls telling them to make sure the results favor the FLN or another leading party allied with the FLN, the National Democratic Rally.

Still, Sadi ran a vigorous campaign during the official three-week campaign season. "We haven't another choice. What can we do? Make terrorism?" he says in a phone call from the campaign trail. "We can talk, but we can't decide.... [The parliament] passes the laws of the administration in silence. It's very important to talk in the assembly [and to have] open discussion."

The Reform Party made a strong showing for an opposition party in the last parliamentary elections in 2002. But it has since split over a decision by its leader, Islamist Abdullah Djaballah, to not support Bouteflika's proposed changes to the constitution. Now Mr. Djaballah is banned from the election and is calling for a boycott. The faction of his party that supports the presidential agenda is still allowed to run and using the Reform Party name.

"This election is going one way only, and it works in the interest of the government parties," says Djaballah with a thick beard and a callus (known as a zbeeb) on his forehead, a sign of piety from touching his head to the ground in prayer. "It looks like the election in the countries that have one party."

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