Exclusive: Algeria to allow foreign NGOs to monitor vote

ALGIERS Tue Feb 21, 2012 5:35pm EST

Members of the committee of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) pose for a picture during a meeting of the Monitoring Committee of UMA in Rabat February 18, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

Members of the committee of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) pose for a picture during a meeting of the Monitoring Committee of UMA in Rabat February 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Election observers from U.S. non-governmental organizations the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute will for the first time be able to monitor a parliamentary election in Algeria later this year, the interior minister said on Tuesday.

Daho Ould Kablia told Reuters that the government, accused of interfering in past votes, would play only a logistical role in the May 10 election, and that for the first time the vote will be supervised by judges and political parties.

Signalling a more powerful role after the election for parliament, which many government opponents see as a rubber-stamp, the minister said its mission would be to draw up a new constitution by the end of this year.

Energy exporter Algeria was largely untouched by last year's "Arab Spring" upheavals, even as revolutions overthrew long-standing rulers in its neighbors Tunisia and Libya.

But it is now under pressure to get in step with the rest of the region in the wake of the uprisings elsewhere and allow elections which are free and fair and give more representation to the previously sidelined opposition.

In a telephone interview, Ould Kablia said that in the election the government "will play a purely logistical role but the supervision will be fully under the judges' and political parties' control ... Transparency is assured in a way that guarantees the neutrality of the administration."

"The new thing also will be the presence of international observers from the EU, the Arab League and so on, but also international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the NDI and the Carter Foundation," he said.

BENCHMARK

The government had previously announced that European Union and Arab League monitors would be invited, part of a package of reforms that also handed control over the vote count to commissions of judges.

But the authorities had not before said if the two U.S. NGOs would be allowed to send monitors. Their election observation missions are viewed by many Western governments as a benchmark of whether a vote is transparent.

However, both the Carter Center and the NDI said they had yet to decide whether to take Algeria up on the invitation to send observers.

"The Center is currently assessing conditions in Algeria, and whether or not it will be possible to send a mission, given existing commitments on other elections," said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center's democracy program. "No decision has been taken at this time."

An NDI representative said in an emailed statement: "NDI appreciates the invitation of the Algerian government and its desire for a more transparent and inclusive process."

"We look forward to the possibility of monitoring the elections in May and are exploring options for organizing a mission."

In the interview, the minister indicated that parliament would take a lead role in drafting planned changes to the constitution, which are likely to reduce presidential powers.

"This election is important because its (the new parliament's) members who will be elected will have as a mission the task of drawing up the new constitution. It will be a kind of constituent assembly," Ould Kablia said. "The new constitution should be done in 2012."

Under Algeria's constitution, it is the prerogative of parliament to change the constitution, but political analysts say in reality parliament merely signs off on amendments handed down to it by the ruling elite.

If the new parliament does have a bigger say in the process, that could mean substantial changes to the constitution because the chamber is likely to include a much bigger opposition contingent, including Islamists, than before.

Asked about the prospect of a low turnout in the election, the minister said: "Abstention could happen because of fear of fraud or because of the parties' poor choice of candidates. Anyway, this election will be a test that will allow citizens to check the transparency or otherwise of the election."

(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by)

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