A large crowd of protesters marched through central Algiers to demand Thursday’s presidential election be cancelled, chanting they would not vote in a poll they regard as a charade.
They chanted “No election tomorrow” and held up banners reading “You have destroyed the country” as riot police blocked roads and a helicopter circled overhead. In one place, a column of police barged through the crowd.
The election is shaping up to be a pivotal moment in a months-long struggle between the shadowy military, security and political leaders network known as the “pouvoir”, who ruled for decades and a leaderless street protest movement.
While the military, the dominant force in the pouvoir – “the power” – cast the election as the only way to end the stalemate on the streets, protesters reject it as a shamto maintain the status quo.
They say no election can be free or fair while the old guard of rulers remain in power and the military stays involved in politics. No foreign observers are in Algeria to monitor the vote.
Whoever is elected after Thursday’s first round and a potential run-off later this month will face hard decisions, with declining energy revenue leading to a planned nine percent cut in public spending next year.
The deadlock between the protest movement and a state increasingly dominated by the military puts at stake the political future of Africa’s largest country, a nation of 40 million people and a major gas supplier to Europe.
All five the state-approved candidates running are former senior officials linked to the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who the army forced aside in April in response to protests.
“Algerians want radical change. They are fed up,” said student Ahmed Kamili (25) wrapped in the national flag.
In Kabylie region, the fiercest arena of the 1990s civil war between the state and Islamist insurgents, almost all businesses and government offices are closed in a general strike in support of protesters and against the election.
“The baker and pharmacy are the only open shops,” said Mezouane Azouz, a resident of Haizer in Kabylie region.
Army chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, who emerged as Algeria’s most powerful political player since Bouteflika was ousted, pushed for Thursday’s vote as the only way to resolve the political crisis.