Thousands took to the streets in Algiers and other cities on Thursday chanting “No vote! We want freedom!” as Algerian authorities held a presidential election protesters view as a charade to keep the ruling elite in power.
In the capital, police rushed the crowd with sticks to disperse marchers, but fell back as more protesters arrived. One young man shouted “We are free!” as a policeman tried to arrest him.
The military-backed government sees the vote as the only way to end 10 months of unrest that brought down veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. The demonstrators say no vote to replace him can be legitimate while the old guard still holds sway.
All five candidates who won approval to stand are former senior officials. A second-round run-off will be held if no-one wins an outright majority.
No result is expected on Thursday, but officials said 33% of registered voters cast ballots by 1600 GMT, two hours before polls closed. There were no foreign observers monitoring the polls and protesters may dispute official figures.
In the centre of Algiers some people were voting as police patrolled on foot and in vehicles. A helicopter circled overhead.
“I WILL NOT VOTE AGAINST MY COUNTRY”
“The country entered a critical phase,” said Aziz Djibali (56) who voted at a polling station near the prime minister’s office. “It’s time for Algerians to voice their opinions peacefully.”
Djamel Faradji, among thousands protesting on the capital’s central Didouche Mourad Boulevard, waved a flag reading: “I am Algerian and I will not vote against my country.”
The unemployed 27-year-old has been protesting for months. Like many demonstrators, he carried a flower to show the protests are peaceful. Protests would continue despite the apparent defiance of the authorities, he said.
Others who did not join the protests seemed ambivalent at best. “What is the benefit of voting?” asked Salim Bairi, a schoolteacher.
The five presidential candidates are ex-prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, ex-culture minister Azzeddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a former member of the ruling FLN party’s central committee.
The winner faces a dire economy, with falling oil revenue leading to a planned nine percent drop in public spending next year.
Video online showed demonstrations in Oran, Constantine and elsewhere. Protesters destroyed ballot boxes in Bejaia and others took to the streets in Haizer in Kabylie region, chanting “No vote”, as polling stations stayed shut.
The area – once a bastion of the independence movement against French colonialism and the main arena of a 1990s civil war between the state and Islamist insurgents that killed 200,000 – has been a centre of this year’s protests.
Aissa Ait Mohand (22) an unemployed farmer’s son, said young people in the area regarded the election as a “trick” by authorities to stay in power. “The government is corrupt. It has to be uprooted one way or another,” he said.
Some in Haizer supported the election, including former Islamist fighters who laid down tarms after the civil war and now back working with the authorities.
“We used to chant for an Islamic state without elections in the 1990s,” said one of them, who gave his name as Yahya. “We ended up with a civil war.”