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Algeria elections look good abroad, bad at home

Algeria overturned the Arab Spring's revolutionary narrative with elections that bolstered the longtime ruling party and dashed Islamists' hopes of gaining power. The vote did something else, too: It burnished Algeria's democratic image with Western allies who rely on it to fight terrorism and supply natural gas.

Few people turned out to vote in last week's elections, and the result did little to boost Algerian rulers' legitimacy at home. But analysts say Algeria needed to hold elections to show it was at least somewhat democratic in the midst of a region-wide push for greater freedoms.

"Algeria has satisfactory relations with Washington and Paris," said Hugh Roberts, an expert on the country at Boston's Tufts University. "It needs to do well enough (with reform) not to embarrass its Western partners, and that's what it's done."

In contrast to the uprisings and game-changing elections that have taken place elsewhere in North Africa over the past year, the political system in Algeria has been remarkably stable, if not stagnant.

The regularly scheduled parliamentary elections produced a win for the ruling party, the National Liberation Front that won independence from the French in 1962, giving it the most seats since Algeria began experimenting with multiparty politics in 1990.

The results have prompted outraged cries of fraud from opposition groups across the Algerian political spectrum, including Islamists parties, which did uniformly poorly. And that further lowers popular confidence in a political system wracked by apathy.

Still, the contests have received moderate praise internationally. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them a "welcome step" and noted especially that thanks to new election rules, nearly a third of the 462-person parliament is female.

The European Union, in a statement, called it a "step forward in the reform process" that would consolidate democracy. The reviews haven't been exactly glowing, but the overall outcome represents a welcome break from the usual Algerian news about attacks by al-Qaida terrorists or labor unrest.

As protests broke out across the Arab world in 2011, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a series of reforms and promised free elections this year.

For the first time ever, the Algerian government even invited in international observers, including a 150-person team from the EU. The European mission said the elections took place in an "atmosphere of general calm and order," though it did not describe them as free and fair.

The decision to hold elections were clearly in response to European and American expectations for reform in the region, explained Antonin Tisseron in a piece for the French Institute of International Relations written just before the vote.

Clinton visited Algiers during a North Africa tour in February, and her message "was unambiguous about this desire of Washington to focus on relations with countries that are clearly committed to the path of democratic reforms," he noted.

Clinton's brief stopover of a few hours in Algiers was in marked contrast to praise-filled overnight stays in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, which held elections last year that brought Islamists to power.

The importance to Europe of a stable and somewhat politically palatable Algerian regime cannot be underestimated.

Algeria has enormous natural gas reserves and sends nearly all of its exports to the European Union by boat and underwater pipeline. It supplies the EU with a fifth of its gas needs and is the third largest source after Russia and Norway.

Washington and Europe value Algiers' cooperation in fighting terrorism, especially in the sprawling desert wastes of the Sahara, where a branch of al-Qaida has become deeply enmeshed in local smuggling networks and is targeting foreigners.

Compared to poorer African nations to the south, Algeria's military is widely seen as the best equipped to take on al-Qaida.

In the aftermath of the elections, however, there have been warnings of renewed instability in Algeria, which plunged into a decade-long civil war in 1992 after the military stepped in and cancelled elections an Islamist party was poised to win. At least 200,000 people are believed to have died during that time.

Charismatic Islamist politician Abdallah Djaballah said Sunday in an interview that the only option now was a Tunisian-style popular uprising. His deputy later said he was misquoted.

"The regime, which has refused all change through the ballot boxes, has opened the door to other possibilities, including the kind of change that took place in our neighbors," the deputy, Lakhdar Ben Khelouf, told The Associated Press.

Since the May 10 elections, small protests by different groups calling for greater benefits and salaries have started up again, including retirees calling for higher pensions and health workers wanting better working conditions.

Like the monarchies in the Gulf, Algeria has been freely spending its hydrocarbon wealth to keep a lid on dissent, allowing it to keep from implementing real changes as long as the price of oil stays high.

"The people don't want to go back to a period of turbulence," said Hafid Chafik Kadri, a vice president of the commission that oversaw the elections. "Many people will say better to have the FLN (the ruling party) we know that wants stability rather than parties we don't know."

Kadri's commission, composed of representatives of the different political parties, has said the process of counting and collating of votes the night of the election was riddled with irregularities. He warned that the overwhelming win by parties linked to the state will quash any lingering interest Algerians have in politics.

The new parliament, which has a 62-percent majority with the ruling party and a sister party filled with pro-regime figures, will rewrite the constitution with the president, ensuring that any reforms will be carefully controlled.

Part of the problem with changing Algeria, explained Roberts of Tufts University, is that there isn't any clear alternative that everyone can agree on. "Everybody will agree the system stinks, but no one has a positive proposal how we will get out of here," he said.