EU observers suggest more transparency for Algeria

The European Union observer mission Saturday called Algeria's elections an important step toward reform, even as the opposition denounced the overwhelming win by government parties as resulting from fraud.

The EU did say, however, that additional measures could have been taken to increase transparency and trust in the process.

Algeria's main ruling party took nearly half the seats in the elections, prompting the independent daily El Watan to describe the election result as the "The Status Quo" in a banner headline — a marked departure from recent elections in other Arab countries that brought the opposition to power.

The stunning victory came as a surprise after decades of parliaments that were more evenly split between several parties, including Islamists, and provoked an audible gasp from journalists when the results were announced Friday.

An alliance of three Islamist parties that had expected to do well, according to their own observers at polling stations, cried fraud, after taking just 48 seats, dozens less than their total in the last parliament.

The European mission, however, said elections took place in an atmosphere of calm efficiency, though it did not describe them as free and fair.

"The elections mark an important first stage of reform," the observer mission's statement said. "The mission noted an atmosphere of general calm and order during the vote."

The mission did suggest that a number of measures could be taken to increase the transparency of the process, including giving political parties access to the national voter registry. It had asked to see the registry as well, as part of its observation, and was flatly turned down by the Interior Ministry, which said the information was confidential.

Mission head Jose Ignacio Salafranca said observers regretted the decision, describing voting lists as an "essential element" of their work.

"According to an agreement we had with the Algerian government, we would have total access to information — we received limited access," he said.

Regarding the allegations of fraud, Salafranca suggested that the results of the individual voting stations that should have been made available to the political parties be consulted and compared to the announced results.

The National Liberation Front, which led the country to independence from France in 1962 and was the sole political party until 1990, nearly doubled its presence in parliament by winning 220 seats in the 462-seat body.

The National Democratic Rally, known by its French initials RND, and also made up of figures close to the regime, took another 69 seats, giving pro-government parties a comfortable 62-percent majority.

The government parties did say Saturday they were open to alliances with other parties.

In a statement issued late Friday night, the Socialist Forces Front, a secular opposition party that had boycotted the last few elections and took just 20 seats this time, said the results did not reflect the party's strength.

"Once again, the system used all of its ingenuity, not to find a solution to the crisis, but to consolidate its power," the statement said.

Abdelmadjid Menasra, leader of a small Islamist party, said in a news conference Saturday that the election was characterized by "fraud from the beginning."

He accused the government of busing in soldiers in civilian clothing to vote for the two ruling parties in the final hours of the election. "The army played a decisive role in the legislative elections," he said.

The new parliament will implement President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's political reforms, including rewriting the constitution.

The two parties ran against the momentous changes taking place in the Arab world. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia of the RND called the Arab Spring "a disaster" and urged Algerians to vote for continuity.

In the run-up to the election, Ouyahia and other government officials spoke of the "Algerian exception" and expressed their confidence that the people would not vote for Islamist parties, such as those that have dominated other post-Arab Spring elections in North Africa.

The crushing government win is expected to increase popular disaffection with politics. Officially, only 42 percent of the electorate participated, but many believe even that number is inflated.