Algerian police broke up a rare anti-government protest on Wednesday, a day before elections that look set to give President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a fourth term in office although he is still recovering from a stroke.
Small groups of demonstrators from Barakat – the name means “Enough” – tried to hold a sit-in in downtown Algiers before uniformed police surrounded them and dragged them off.
The ruling Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and the army have been the main influence on the North African state’s politics since independence from France in 1962.
“We are carrying out this sit-in to denounce this electoral masquerade,” said one protester called Massi. “We are just peacefully demonstrating, we are not calling for a revolution or trying to make trouble.”
Police dispersed several small groups of protesters, some waving Algeria’s green and white flag. Some groups were faced with chanting Bouteflika supporters.
If Bouteflika wins, as is widely expected, his health and a possible transition during his fourth term have raised questions about stability in Algeria, a partner in the U.S. campaign on Islamist militancy in the Maghreb and a major supplier of Europe’s gas.
A group of opposition parties, once rivals, have joined forces to call for a boycott, saying the election is unfairly tilted in favour of the FLN and its allies. In past elections they have denounced the results as fraudulent.
Backed by the ruling party, Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke last year. He has not campaigned for himself before the April 17 vote.
His closest rival is Ali Benflis, a former FLN leader who ran against Bouteflika a decade ago.
Bouteflika’s backers portray him as the candidate who can provide stability in a country where many are still cautious about change after a 1990s war with Islamist militants that killed 200,000 people.
Demonstrations in Algiers have been banned since a protest in 2001 in which several people were killed in clashes.
Barakat’s initial protests were broken up by the police. But more recently it has been allowed to hold regular protests to criticise Bouteflika’s decision to run again. The rallies have only gathered small numbers of people.