May 5, 2017 / 11:16 AM / 3 months ago

Algeria's ruling FLN, allies win majority after vote marked by apathy

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks at journalists after casting his ballot during the parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria, May 4, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front party and allies won a majority in a parliamentary election overshadowed by questions over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's health and reforms to tackle the financial crunch from lower oil prices.

Government officials and party leaders worked hard to get voters out for an election seen by analysts as way of shoring up support for a system long dominated by the FLN. Bouteflika has been mostly absent from the public eye since a 2013 stroke.

Turnout for Thursday's election for the 462-member National Assembly was 38.25 percent, a fall from 43 percent five years ago, reflecting general distrust among Algerians that a parliament with few powers can offer any change.

The FLN, Bouteflika's own party with roots in the war against colonial France, won 164 seats in the assembly, considerably less than the 221 it took five years ago.

Coalition ally the National Rally for Democracy (RND) won 97 seats, gaining from around 70 seats five years ago.

A moderate Islamist alliance led by the MSP party, which had played an opposition role but has moved back to supporting Bouteflika and the pro-government coalition, won 33 seats.

"Algerians generally believe only the president can affect any change and implement reforms," said local political analyst Farid Ferrahi. "They see the parliament very negatively."

A veteran of the independence war that ended in 1962, Bouteflika is generally praised for bringing OPEC member Algeria out of a 1990s conflict with Islamist militants and for overseeing a period of high oil prices and vast public spending.

But after nearly two decades in power, Bouteflika has been seen mostly in brief television images since his stroke. His health has raised questions over a potential transition before his term ends in 2019, with no clarity on who would replace him.

In the 2012 election, FLN and RND won a majority after playing the security card in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts that toppled leaders in neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many Algerians remain wary of upheaval after their own civil war killed 200,000 people.

Delicate Time

Thursday's election is expected to be followed by the shakeup in the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal though it is not clear whether he will stay on as premier.

The ballot came at a delicate time for Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe and a partner in Western campaign against Islamist militancy in North Africa and the Sahel region.

Algeria's leadership is wrestling with how to progress with reforms to cope with the dramatic fall in crude prices that is testing an economy heavily dependent on oil revenues and still mostly controlled by the state.

The government has already cut public spending and has begun to slowly adjust the vast oil-financed welfare system, from cheap housing to subsidised fuel and food programmes, that has helped ease social tensions in the past.

More than half of Algerians are under 30, and many young people say they have little connection to the rhetoric of their country's ageing leaders, many of whom draw their legitimacy from their ties to the 1954-1962 colonial war.

The president, who turned 80 in March, voted from a wheelchair on Thursday helped by his young nephew. In his first public appearance since late last year, he shook hands with polling workers but did not speak.

With no clear successor having emerged, political parties and leaders have been positioning for potential change. The FLN and RND leaders clashed during the election campaign over which party was closest to Bouteflika.

Few observers see the Algerian leadership risking anything but a smooth transition in a system where decisions often emerge after behind-the-scenes power struggles among the FLN old guard and army chiefs who see themselves as guardians of stability.

"With this election, no major opposition party boycotted," said Robert Parks, a political scientist specialising in the North Africa. "They all participated because they know on the immediate horizon some significant changes are going to occur."

Reporting by Patrick Markey and Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Catherine Evans

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