Algerian government announces higher turnout, election results expected Friday

Algerians went to the polls Thursday for what have been billed as the first free and fair parliamentary elections in over 20 years.

No results are expected until Friday, but the Algerian government has announced a higher-than-expected turnout — at 42.9% turnout, it is higher than the 35% turnout recorded in the 2007 election.  Algeria’s government, under longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was looking for a robust turnout to mark support for the limited reforms it has introduced since the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts swept the Middle East since January 2011.

Notwithstanding the government’s efforts, the fairly limited powers of Algeria’s parliament and widespread skepticism among Algeria’s relatively youthful electorate have resulted in widespread apathy about Thursday’s election.

The two main groups vying for power are the longtime governing party, the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN), and various Islamic parties, many of which are competing under a joint ‘Green alliance’ banner.

Foreign observers reported “general satisfactory” conditions:

The head of the European Union observation mission, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, told reporters that polling was conducted in “generally satisfactory” conditions.

Foreign observers totalled 500 to cover a country four times the size of France — Algeria is Africa’s largest nation — and they were denied access to the national voters roll.

The Algerian electoral commission said it had received dozens of complaints, including some concerning two ministers who are accused of campaigning around polling stations and now face legal proceedings.

Who is Fotis Kouvelis?

With Fotis Kouvelis, the head of Greece’s Democratic Left (Δημοκρατική Αριστερά), the most moderate of the three vaguely anti-bailout leftist groups to thrive in Sunday’s election, now in discussions with Evangelos Venizelos, the former finance minister and the leader of center-left PASOK, to form a national unity government, the center spotlight of Greek — and European politics — now shines on Kouvelis, who was ranked the most popular party leader throughout the election campaign.

Kouvelis, at 63 years old, is as soft-spoken and understated as his young leftist rival Alexis Tsipras is brash:

Avoiding the fiery rhetoric and bombastic speeches popular with Greek politicians, Kouvelis speaks in a measured tone and is seen as a figure who can restore the country’s dignity.

”Political intensity and the power of a stance or a proposal cannot be found in yelling, but in the content of what you have to say,” Kouvelis told Reuters.

Pledging to ditch austerity policies without jeopardizing Greece’s membership of the euro zone, Kouvelis has successfully lured away former PASOK voters disillusioned with the Socialist party’s support for unpopular wage, spending and pension cuts.

A fixture in Greek politics since the 1980s, he has been a member of parliament since 1989 (except for a brief spell from 1993 to 1996), and served briefly in 1989 as a minister of justice.

Kouvelis formed the Democratic Left in 2010 with fellow members of Synaspismós, the leading party in the SYRIZA group that Tsipras leads, over differences with Tsipras’s more radical opposition to the bailout and Greek budget cuts.  Prior to Sunday’s election, the Democratic Left held 10 seats in the prior Hellenic parliament — four former SYRIZA MPs and six former PASOK MPs who joined the Democratic Left only in March 2012.  On Sunday, the Democratic Left won 19 seats and nearly 7% of the vote.

Kouvelis has walked a tight line throughout the election campaign — he strongly supports Greece’s continued membership in the eurozone and his party’s slogan has been “the responsible left,” and throughout the campaign, he refused to join forces with SYRIZA.  After Sunday’s vote, he also seemed to rule out a coalition with PASOK and the center-right New Democracy as well.  Nonetheless, he has strongly opposed the harsh austerity and other terms mandated by the bailout Greece has received — his program has emphasized the renegotiation of Greece’s bailout, including some debt forgiveness from the European Central Bank.  He also favors stimulus spending to bring Greece out of its current near-depression economic conditions.

If he is serious about joining a coalition with PASOK, the key question will be how far PASOK (and New Democracy, if it joins any such unity coalition) is willing to consider a renegotiation of those terms.

If any such coalition succeeds, Kouvelis will reap the political benefits of pulling the pro-bailout parties into an acknowledgement that the current bailout terms are too harsh, bringing some relief to Greece’s economy and a reprieve from the harshest elements of its austerity program, and restoring some stability to Greece’s politics — for a while — without drawing the international ire that would result from a further debt default or a return to the drachma.

Venizelos gets the mandate, but new elections still probable in Greece

UPDATE, 2:45 pm ET: After Venizelos (left) met with Kouvelis (right) earlier today, it appears that Greece is a bit closer to forming a governing coalition, although it remains unclear to me which parties would join such a unity coalition:

“The moment of truth is approaching for everyone,” said Kouvelis, who has so far had a guarded approach to entering a unity government. “I propose the formation of an ecumenical government made up of trustworthy political figures that will reflect and respect the message from the elections.”

Kouvelis, whose appeal seemed to be directed at [SYRIZA] and New Democracy, added that this government should have a specific goal.

“This government’s mission, which will have a specific program and timeframe that will last until the European elections of 2014, will be twofold: Firstly, to keep the country in the European Union and euro and, secondly, to being the gradual disengagement from the [EU-IMF] memorandum.”

Kouvelis had previously indicated his willingness to join a SYRIZA-led coalition, and Venizelos will meet with Tsipras and Samaras on Friday.

Together, PASOK, SYRIZA and the Democratic Left would only command 119 seats, but a coalition of New Democracy, PASOK and the Democratic Left would command 168 seats.  Based on the past 72 hours, I cannot see any unity government that would bring together New Democracy and SYRIZA into the same government, so I think that any Kouvelis-endorsed coalition would include New Democracy and not SYRIZA.

Although Kouvelis has been touted as a potential prime minister, it is hard to see Samaras standing down as prime minister in favor of Kouvelis — it is New Democracy, after all, that would contribute 108 of the 168 seats in such a coalition.

One possibility, perhaps, is that Venizelos is willing to pull PASOK further away from its pro-bailout position and from its former caolition partner, New Democracy.  If the 33 seats from the center-right, but anti-bailout Independent Greeks are somehow in play: a PASOK-SYRIZA-Democratic Left-Independent Greeks coalition would carry 152 seats.

The supposed breakthrough comes as the first post-election poll shows that SYRIZA would win a second vote in June with 27.7% to just 20.3% for New Democracy and with PASOK languishing in third place at 12.6%.  With SYRIZA’s popularity climbing, Venizelos and Kouvelis know that it will come largely at the expense of their own parties, which may be driving them toward a coalition government, thereby avoiding new elections.

Stay tuned!

Continue reading Venizelos gets the mandate, but new elections still probable in Greece