ALGIERS, Algeria – Islamists suffered a surprising defeat in Algeria's parliamentary elections, bucking a trend that saw them gain power across North Africa after Arab Spring uprisings.
The three party Islamist "Green Alliance" claimed Friday the results were rigged to keep them out of power in a country that has experienced decades of violence between radical Islamist groups and security forces.
The Green Alliance was widely expected to do well, but instead it was the pro-government National Liberation Front that has ruled the country for much of its history since independence from France that dominated the election.
The FLN, as it is known by its French initials, took 220 seats out of 462, while a sister party, also packed with government figures, took another 68 seats, giving the two a comfortable majority.
The Islamist alliance, which took just 48 seats, less than in the last election, said the results differed dramatically what their election observers had witnessed in polling stations.
"We are surprise by these results, which are illogical, unreasonable and unacceptable," said a visibly angry Abou Djara Soltani, the head of the largest party in the alliance, attributing the results to "those who would like to return to a single party rule."
Soltani told journalists that his alliance would discuss whether they would pull out of parliament, but said their most likely move was to attempt to ally with the smattering of other leftist and liberal parties in the opposition.
"These results will send the Algerian spring backwards," he added.
Algeria was largely spared the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept North Africa and the Middle East over the past year, cushioned by its huge wealth of oil and natural gas, and a population still traumatized by the violence that followed a military coup in 1991 when another Islamist party nearly won elections.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced reforms in 2011, however, and said the new parliament would be involved in rewriting the constitution.
In the runup to elections, the government portrayed the parliamentary contests as "Algeria's Spring" and invited in 500 international observers, promising these would be the freest polls in 20 years.
For the Islamists, however, the overwhelming victory for the government parties smacked of fraud, something that has characterized many past elections.
"Of course there was fraud," said Abderrazzak Mukri, the alliance's campaign manager. He said initial tabulations from voting stations Thursday night had put the Islamist party as a close second to the FLN.
Interior Minister Dahu Ould Kablia, who announced the results Friday, dismissed any possibilities of fraud and described the elections as free, transparent and fair.
"The was no fraud," he said at the press conference. "If anyone has proof, they have 10 days to present it."
In the 1991 elections that were canceled, the FLN took only a handful of seats compared to a crushing victory of the Islamist Salvation Front, which was later banned.
"The 1991 elections was a vote to punish the FLN, in 2012 it was a vote for safety," Kablia explaining the difference. He said Algerians saw the upheaval of the Arab Spring in neighboring Libya and Tunisia and opted for continuity.
Political analyst Mohand Berkouk of the Algiers-based Center for Research and Security concurred that the results were a clear vote for stability.
He said that the Islamists became overconfident, expecting a victory similar to elsewhere in the region. Soltani's Movement of Society for Peace was actually part of the governing coalition until it joined the opposition right before elections.
"They quit the government at the last minute to join the opposition and that was a fatal error," he said. "Their arrogant discourse, as though they were already in power, alarmed people, prompting them to vote for stability."
For many Algerians, however, the continuation a status quo of high unemployment — 20 percent for university graduates — is not attractive.
The last year has seen almost daily protests breaking out over the lack of jobs, affordable housing or decent health care.
"We believe that, by eliminating any illusion of change, the outcome of this election is set to increase discontent with the ruling elite, which will continue to pose significant risks to stability in the medium to long term," said a post-election analysis from the Eurasia Group.
"The defeat of the Islamist coalition is likely to exacerbate the already-widespread view that power in Algeria remains in the hands of a predatory elite detached from the needs of the vast majority of the population," it added.
The crushing win for the same party that has controlled the country for the last 50 years comes at a time when many Algerians have described themselves as uninterested in politics.
While the government announced a turnout of 42 percent of 21.6 million registered voters — an increase from 36 percent in 2007 — in the election, participation in the major cities was only around 30 percent.
Also at least 17 percent of the ballots cast were void — often because voters ripped them up before putting them into the voting envelope and dropping them into the ballot box.
A number of independent newspapers also expressed skepticism over the government's final turnout figure, citing a lack of voter interest observed across the country by their reporters in the field.
In contrast to the long lines and enthusiastic voters found in other Arab countries during elections brought on by the Arab Spring, most Algerians expressed little interest during the campaign, citing the assembly's lack of power and chronic election fraud.
Sociologist Nasser Djabi explained that unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, Algeria's Islamist parties do not have deep roots into society and their middle class activists can't mobilize people the way the Muslim Brotherhood can.
"If the population is mobilized or believes in someone or a party, a lot can happen," he said. "I think the middle class is scared of the Algerian population."