Islamists poised for strong showing in Algeria vote

ALGIERS Thu May 10, 2012 7:46pm EDT

1 of 4. An election worker empties a ballot box to count votes after parliamentary elections at a polling station in Algiers May 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ramzi Boudina

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Results of an Algerian parliamentary election to be announced on Friday were likely to hand an unprecedented share of seats to moderate Islamists, easing pressure for change in a country left behind by last year's "Arab Spring."

But many people were mistrustful of promises from the ruling elite - in power uninterrupted since independence 50 years ago - that it was embarking on genuine democratic reform.

A strong performance for Islamists would bring Algeria, which supplies about one fifth of Europe's natural gas imports, into line with Arab neighbors who have seen Islamists come to power after last year's uprisings.

In contrast to countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists seeking office in Algeria are firmly part of the establishment, have no radical agenda and are unlikely to try to undo the ruling elite's grip on power.

Algeria's rulers responded to the upheavals in neighboring countries by promising its own people an "Algerian Spring" - a managed process of reform, with the election as the first step.

"The young people will make an Algerian Spring in this election," said Bouguera Soltani, whose mildly Islamist "Green Alliance" coalition is tipped to become one of the biggest forces in the new parliament.

"The 2012 parliament is different from the previous ones because it will have new prerogatives. People who boycott (the vote) will regret it," he said on Thursday as he voted near his home in Staoueli, a town west of the capital.

INDIFFERENCE

Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, who is overseeing the election said he would announce the results at 3:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Friday. Earlier, he said turnout was 42.9 percent, not the mass abstention many people had been expecting.

Nevertheless, the election has been low-key and marked by widespread indifference from Algerians who find it hard to believe anything is going to change.

Many believe real power lies with an informal network commonly known by the French term "le pouvoir," or "the power," which is unelected, has been around for years and has its roots in the security forces. Officials deny this network exists.

Yacine Zaid, a human rights activist and opponent of the ruling elite, said he thought the election was "a masquerade, a circus. ... The authorities have always dared to do what they want, to give whatever figures are in their head."

However, there is little appetite for a revolt. Energy revenues have lifted living standards and people look with alarm at the bloodshed in neighboring Libya after its insurrection.

In Algeria, a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still casts a shadow. The fighting started after the military-backed government annulled an election which hardline Islamists were poised to win.

TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY?

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said the election is the first phase in a program of reform that will turn Algeria into a genuine democracy, though many people question whether the "pouvoir" will really relinquish power.

The reforms coincide with the 50th anniversary this year of independence from France. This will be an occasion for lavish celebration, and also soul-searching about whether the country is on the right path.

The first step is likely to be the appointment of a new prime minister, which is the president's prerogative.

Many analysts expect the holder of the office, Ahmed Ouyahia, to be replaced by someone from the Islamist camp, possible Amar Ghoul, who is now public works minister.

Later this year, the new parliament will vote on proposed changes to the constitution, which will probably reduce the president's power.

The final step in the promised transition will be the choice of a new president. Bouteflika, 75 and frail-looking, is not expected to run again when his third term ends in 2014, and could even step down before that.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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