Last week's parliamentary elections in Algeria, which saw the regime strengthen its hold on power, have been broadly welcomed by western governments.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the elections were "a welcome step in Algeria's progress toward democratic reform", and William Hague, the British foreign secretary, described them as "positive".
Clinton and Hague both praised the increased representation of women in the new parliament – 145 out of 462 members, though this is not so much a reflection of voters' preferences as the result of a newly-introduced quota system.
These reactions followed the usual approach of western governments in such circumstances: to accept declarations of reformist intent until proved otherwise, and to signal their approval of steps "in the right direction" while emphasising the need for more.
Thus, Hague added: "I hope this progress will lead to further reforms in the forthcoming discussion of constitutional change, and in the run-up to the local elections later this year and the presidential elections in 2014."
That was also echoed by Ignacio Salafranca, the head of the EU's election observer team: "We take note of a first step in the reform process which will need to be backed, after a constitutional review, by a deepening of democracy."
The election itself bucked recent trends in other Arab countries where Islamists have gained ground. President Bouteflika's party, the FLN, which has dominated Algerian politics since the 1950s, won 220 seats – 84 more than in 2007 - while the prime minister's National Democratic Rally won 68 seats – an increase of seven.
In contrast, the Green Alliance, a new grouping of three Islamist parties, won 48 seats – 12 fewer than in 2007 when these parties contested the elections separately.
In fourth place, the secularist Front of Socialist Forces (Algeria's oldest opposition party) re-entered parliament with 21 seats after boycotting elections for more than a decade. Close behind it, the Workers' Party won 20 seats (down six).
In addition to these, there are 19 independents and a plethora of smaller parties – all with fewer than 10 seats each. El-Watan has more details (in French) and there is a pie chart on the Moor Next Door's blog.
Even before the results were announced, the Green Alliance was complaining about "centralised fraud" – and there are indeed grounds for some suspicion.
To allay fears of ballot rigging, the government had allowed 500 international observers. Among these, observers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said they had recorded no irregularities. The EU observers did not challenge the elections' overall credibility, though they had earlier complained about being denied access to the national electoral register, saying this was "was not consistent with pledges of transparency".
Regarding possible fraud, the Moor Next Door notes that the FLN did "unbelievably well" in some areas and "in certain semi-rural areas the FLN came close to winning 100% of the vote". The MSP (the main party in the Islamist Green Alliance) also did unexpectedly badly in Blida, one of its traditional strongholds, which the Moor Next Door says "speaks to the extent of fraud and vote buying".
That said, though, it's doubtful whether the Green Alliance would have fared significantly better without ballot-rigging. Unlike the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (whose success in the early 1990s led to elections being cancelled), the Alliance does not have mass popular support. It also operates with the regime's blessing, so its appeal to potential Islamist voters is rather limited.
Regardless of whether the electoral process was fair, it's difficult to argue that the outcome is a fair reflection of opinion in Algeria. On the government's own admission, more than 57% of registered voters stayed away from the polls (and some estimates put turnout at less than half the official figure). Many others went to the polls but spoiled their ballot papers (17% of the votes were invalid, according to the Associated Press).
What the vote does reflect is not so much public apathy as a sense of powerlessness, and widespread disillusionment with Algeria's supposed "progress" towards democracy. There is a fin de siecle air about the regime but no real possibility of change until President Bouteflika goes – which should be in 2014 unless ill health forces him out of office earlier.
So, for now, it's a waiting game – as it was in Egypt during the last years of Mubarak. In the Egyptian elections of November 2010 (just a couple of months before the revolution) the regime became too greedy for its own good and the resulting "parliament of cats and dogs" undoubtedly added to the grievances behind the popular uprising. In Algeria, though, the regime may get away with it ... for the time being.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 May 2012.