ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria on Friday declared its ruling party for the past 50 years the victor in a parliamentary election, going against the tide of the “Arab Spring” which has transformed its neighbors.
The governing elite in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe’s imported natural gas, had promised reform and a new generation of leaders in response to last year’s upheavals in the region, but the election preserved the status quo.
Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, who oversaw Thursday’s election, said the National Liberation Front (FLN) would be the biggest party in the new parliament, with 220 of the 462 seats.
The FLN was the movement which fought for independence from French colonial rule. Ever since, it has been at the heart of a system of power that has left Algerians so skeptical of their views being counted that over half the electorate did not vote.
“There is no change,” political analyst and writer Abed Charef told Reuters. “Algeria has invented the force of inertia.”
The official results showed that the FLN, whose honorary head is President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, had increased its share of seats to 47 percent from 34 percent.
Second place went to the National Democratic Rally (RND), with 68 seats. The RND is led by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and was in second place to the FLN in the outgoing parliament.
The Green Algeria alliance, a grouping of moderate Islamist parties with links to the ruling establishment, was in third place with 48 seats.
In fourth was the secularist Front of Socialist Forces, Algeria’s oldest opposition group, which ended more than a decade of boycotts to run in the election.
The Interior Minister said people had chosen to back the FLN because it was a party they knew, and which offered a safe “refuge” from the turmoil in the region.
“The election has reinforced the Algerian people’s attachment to the values of peace and stability,” Interior Minister Ould Kablia told a news conference. “If the people have chosen the same parties who were in the previous parliament, it is their right to choose.”
The result leaves Algeria the odd man out in North Africa. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all have had revolutions that ousted autocratic leaders, while Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor to the west, now has an Islamist former opposition leader as its prime minister.
The insurrections in the region last year prompted calls for Algeria to embrace democracy more completely and to refresh an establishment that has run the country without interruption since independence from France in 1962.
Yet it was clear the election was not a clean break from the past. More than half of eligible voters abstained, with many saying they had no faith there would be real change. Seventeen percent of ballots were spoiled or invalid.
Analysts said the low turnout helped the FLN. Its traditional supporters - the elderly, the military, public servants - are the most likely to turn up and vote, while those who could have countered them stayed at home.
Many believe elections are pointless because 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 such a network exists.
For now, there is little appetite for a revolt.
The country is still emerging from a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people. Few people want any radical change that could tip Algeria back into violence.
But in the longer-term the vote could widen the gulf between Algeria’s ruling establishment and a majority of the people who feel excluded from decisions about how their country is run.
“The outcome of this election is set to increase discontent with the ruling elite, which will continue to pose significant risks to stability,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst with Eurasia Group, a private think-tank.
Algerians who had hoped the “Arab Spring” would lead to reform in their country were scornful of the election.
Yacine Zaid, a human rights activist and critic of the ruling elite, called the election “a masquerade, a circus”.
“The authorities have always dared to do what they want, to give whatever figures are in their head,” he said.
However, European Union vote monitors said the organization of the vote was satisfactory. “Citizens were, in general, able to truly exercise their right to vote,” said Jose Ignacio Salafranca, head of the EU observer mission.
Within the next few days, Bouteflika, 75, is likely to exercise his prerogative to appoint a new prime minister. The victory makes FLN leader Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who has already served once as prime minister, a leading candidate for the job.
Attention is likely to turn after that to the race to succeed Bouteflika as head of state. He is frail and is not expected to run again when his term ends in 2014.
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Michael Roddy and Alastair Macdonald