It was Thursday morning, election day, and regulars packed the Quatre Saisons du Globe cafe near Place 1 Mai, a working-class area of Algiers.
“You’re off to vote?” asks barman Reda Aksses of a customer. “Vote? Of course not,” the man says, draining his tea and heading out in the hot, bright morning.
Jolted by the Arab Spring, Algeria’s leaders have portrayed Thursday's parliamentary election, with new parties and the first-ever international observers, as both a step toward democracy and a vote of confidence. But while President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s coalition strengthened its majority, the official turnout of 42.36 percent is an ambiguous omen. The opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party, which boycotted the vote, says turnout did not exceed 18 percent.
The challenge today for the government is twofold, says Amel Boubekeur, an Algeria expert with the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. It must convince world opinion of its intent to reform, and the powerful Army and security services that it can manage the country. It must also win the confidence of young people, two-thirds of whom are under 30, and many of whom are unemployed.
Most Algerians, angry about years of unemployment, corruption, and what they see as stifling rule by an aging elite, reject revolution but want change, analysts say.
“There’s a nihilist discourse based on what has not been achieved,” says Seddik Chiheb, a member of the National Democratic Rally party, which backs Mr. Bouteflika, and vice-president of the outgoing parliament. “The state must convince Algerians that its initiatives are well-founded.”
“The young in particular understand that parliament is not where change will happen,” says Mrs. Boubekeur. “Many voters will have been the older generation.”
Turn out the vote
Algerian officials have urged Algerians of all ages to vote. Speaking on May 8, Bouteflika warned that “If we don’t want to endanger the country’s stability, we must vote, and en masse.”
Critics, however, say that Algerian politics are geared against change, while promises of reform are counteracted by measures to silence dissent.
“In Algeria, elections have never changed anything,” argues Abdou Bendjoudi, a spokesman for the Movement of Independent Youth for Change, a grassroots group that called for a boycott of yesterday's vote.
Authorities used a ban on public gatherings in Algiers to justify breaking up recent protests and arresting activists, said Human Rights Watch in a report published two days ago.
“There’s no real reform as long as Algerians are still forbidden to demonstrate in the street,” says Faycal Metaoui, a columnist for El Watan, a leading independent newspaper.
Algeria won independence from France in 1962 after eight years of war. After one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN) party, politics was opened in 1989. The country slid into civil war in 1992 after the Army cancelled elections that an Islamist party was expected to win. Bouteflika oversaw a 2005 peace deal with most militias.
In 2008, a parliament dominated by the FLN lifted presidential term limits, allowing Bouteflika to win his current third five-year term.
Winning hearts and minds
But back at the Quatre Saisons du Globe, regulars are less concerned with electoral victories than they are with what they describe as failures of governance.
Mr. Aksses is plonking down glasses of tea and coffee that left damp rings on the bar top. A young and sleepy day laborer named Mokhtar Melah spoons sugar into his hot milk and bites off the end of his croissant.
“I have no faith in this election,” he says. “The government does nothing for us. When my mother went to hospital for calcium deficiency they didn’t even have the medicine.”
Deemed too short for the Army, Mr. Melah left his home town of Sidi Lantri at 18 to seek work in the capital. He shares a three-room apartment with 10 other men.
A TV in the corner switched abruptly from oud music to Bouteflika preparing to vote. He held his ballot poised over the box as a storm of cameras flashed.
“Tahya Bouteflika!” – “Long live Bouteflika!” cries Jamal Benseljim, a middle-aged employee of a car rental service sitting near Melah.
Mr. Benseljim credits Bouteflika with bringing stability, and sees voting as a chance to shake up Algeria’s politics.
“We need houses and young people need jobs,” he said. “I hope the parliament can change things.”
Melah’s generation often takes a more jaundiced view. “Because young people don’t have work,” he says. “Not me, not my siblings, nor most of my friends."
For Hadi Benomar, a young economics graduate sitting with Benseljim, the state is a source of such problems.
“Algeria is rich from oil, but budgets disappear into corruption and misuse,” he says. “I won’t be voting.”
Mr. Benomar plans to marry this year but is forced by lack of housing to live with his parents, a common frustration for young Algerians hoping to start families.
Casting her vote
At the Yousef Ibn Tachfine school in the upscale district of Hydra, a housewife named Salia Ait Mohamed voted in hopes of a better future for her four children. She brought along her six-year-old son, Houssam.
Her husband studied medicine in Syria but cannot work in Algeria’s francophone hospitals. He sells cleaning supplies instead, and the family shares a two-room studio.
“My family supported the FLN during the war for independence, and we still do,” Mrs. Ait Mohamed said. “Sometimes I hope that the party can help. Other times I despair.”
She finished voting, and walked silently out of the school and down the street, a small figure in an orange skirt and black head scarf, leading her son by the hand.