Thu, 23 Jan 2020

Algeria held a presidential election Thursday meant to bring stability after a year of political turmoil, but voting was marred as protesters ransacked provincial polling stations and rallied in the capital.

The unpopular vote comes almost 10 months after a people power movement ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, after two decades in office, and as protesters keep pushing for an end to the military-backed political system.

At least 10 000 demonstrators massed again in Algiers despite a heavy police presence backed by water cannon and helicopters, and after the arrests of at least 10 activists in the morning to prevent a repeat of the previous day's anti-election rallies.

Shortly after polls opened, groups "ransacked the ballot boxes and destroyed part of the electoral lists" in the disaffected northern mountain region of Kabylie, home to much of the country's Berber minority, a resident of the city of Bejaia told AFP.

Video footage shared on social media, purportedly from a polling station in a school building there, showed dozens of people hurling ballot papers into the air.

Elsewhere in Kabylie, a large crowd surrounded a polling station in the city of Tizi Ouzou, where all voting was suspended, and protesters also took to the streets of Bouira, witnesses said.

Kabylie has a long history of opposition to the central government but Thursday's presidential vote was unpopular across much of the country.

Five candidates are in the running, all of them widely rejected as "children of the regime".

Among them are former prime ministers Abdelmajid Tebboune, 73, and Ali Benflis, 75, and a former minister, Azzedine Mihoubi.

'Mired in crisis'

Turnout was expected to be low after demonstrators shouting "no vote" again pressed their demand for a boycott, facing off with truncheon-wielding riot police in Algiers on the eve of the polls.

While only a trickle of voters showed up in some districts, national television showed longer queues elsewhere, leading some online commentators to wonder "how much they have been paid".

Two hours after the start of voting, turnout stood at 7.9 percent of the 24 million eligible voters, said the electoral authority -- a "respectable" level according to its president Mohamed Charfi.

"I am voting because I am afraid that the country will get mired in the crisis," said Karim, a 28-year-old civil servant.

Mahdid Saadi, a 76-year-old retired man, showed off his voter card with many stamps and said: "I have always voted and I still vote today, it is a duty".

Polls were scheduled to close at 1800 GMT but the result may not be announced for another day or later, as was the case after previous elections already marked by high abstention rates.

Whoever wins will struggle to be accepted by the electorate in the north African country, where many citizens rail against a regime they see as inept, corrupt and unable to manage the flagging economy.

"None of the five candidates can hope to be considered legitimate" in the eyes of the protesters, said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.

'No to system'

The "Hirak" street movement kicked off when Bouteflika announced in February he would seek a fifth term in office.

Since then protesters have stayed on the streets for more than 40 weeks, demanding the total dismantling of the system that has ruled Algeria since independence from France in 1962.

The military high command, which long wielded power from the shadows, has been forced to take a more visible role and has pushed for the election as a way to withdraw behind the scenes again.

Demonstrators have vented their anger at army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has emerged as Algeria's de facto strongman.

A previous poll set for July was scrapped for lack of viable candidates and interim president Abdelkader Bensalah's term technically ended five months ago.

Given the broad opposition, the five candidates have run low-key campaigns, usually under heavy police protection and often being drowned out by hecklers.

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