Women take almost a third of Algeria legislative seats

By IndepthAfrica
In Algeria
May 16th, 2012
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Officials start counting the votes in Algiers on May 10, 2012. Algeria Thursday held its first polls since the Arab Spring, with an official turnout figure poised to belie deep voter disaffection over the prospect of a political status quo. AFP PHOTO /FAROUK BATICHE

Algiers – Algeria’s legislative election saw women take almost a third of the seats, making the national assembly the most gender-balanced in the region but activists say the battle is far from being won.

According to a provisional count, at least 145 of the new, enlarged national assembly’s 462 seats will be occupied by women, up from a representation of only 7% in the outgoing house.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed “the high number of women elected” while the UN chief Ban Ki-moon “welcomed the increased representation of women in the new parliament”.

The 10 May election saw President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front recover some of its past hegemony while Islamist parties lost ground, failing to ride the religious wave that followed the region’s Arab Spring.

“The Arab Spring may be delayed for the Islamists but its flowers have blossomed for women, they will bring colour to parliament and raise their voices in an assembly which was dominated by men for 50 years,” said Samia, an unemployed woman in her fifties, in central Algiers.

“With this considerable proportion of women in parliament, we’re closing in on true democratic representation in parliament,” said Fatima Mustapha, a university teacher.

Women account for 53% of the population, 45% of magistrates and now control about 32% of the national assembly, statistics which place Algeria ahead of Tunisia and Morocco.

10 years of activism

Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia boasted that the number of women elected last week also put Algeria ahead of the European Union average.

After 10 years of activism by women’s rights groups, a new law imposed parliamentary quotas of 20% to 50% of women, depending on the size of the constituency.

But feminists stress it remains to be seen how effectively the new women MPs, many of them inexperienced, will work together across party lines.

“Women now have to prove that they deserved their seats,” said Nadia Ait Zaid, a jurist who runs a centre that campaigned for the quotas and trained some of the women candidates before the election.

She said the two main issues that female lawmakers will have to tackle are a family code that still does not grant full equality to women and a bill criminalising domestic violence.

“They need to create a front that transcends ideologies, a bit like a cross-party parliamentary group,” said Ait Zai.

Several male-dominated parties, including the ruling National Liberation Front, had initially resisted the quotas, arguing that some women who were lower than men on election party lists would get bumped up just to meet the imposed requirement.

Several women’s rights activists also complained that some party leaders had named their wives and daughters at the bottom of their lists to pay lip service to the new equality rules.

Another obstacle

The popular Arabic-language daily Ennahar on Tuesday carried pictures of several newly-elected women lawmakers with this headline: “50 single women in parliament!” – and a list of the perks they would be granted as MPs.

Even if women succeed in conquering machismo and religious conservatism in parliament, they face another obstacle in the widespread mistrust towards the institution itself.

“Whether it’s a man or a woman who gets elected doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the elections are fair, and they were not fair,” said Salima, a young woman wearing a traditional head-to-toe garment.

“A woman who wins thanks to a quota imposed by the law or thanks to fraud is not legitimate. The same goes for men.”

Despite qualified endorsements from foreign observers following the vote, many Algerians and observers believe the official turnout figure of 43% and each party’s score have little correlation with reality.

- SAPA

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