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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Thousands of protesters rallied on Thursday in Algeria's capital against presidential elections they believe will only perpetuate the ruling elite's time in power.
They took to the streets amid a tight security presence, and were expected to be out until the preliminary results are announced at 11pm. Previous protests have ended at 6pm, and taken place only on Fridays and Tuesdays, but the protests have diverged this week, with protesters chanting late into the night on Wednesday that they would be out late on election day.
All 61,000 polling stations around the North African country opened as planned at 8am local time, but there were reports of protesters ransacking provincial polling stations.
A low turnout is expected as political and civil organisations have urged Algerians to refrain from voting and refused to endorse the five candidates, all of them former officials under ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The five candidates cast their votes at polling stations around Algiers, and local media reported that former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also voted through a proxy.
The favourite in the presidential race is former Minister of Culture Azeddine Mihoubi, with former prime minister Madjid Tebboun close behind.
Protesters continued to call for a boycott of the vote and have gone as far as to describe the people voting as traitors.
A video circulated online appeared to show protesters raiding a polling station at a local school in the province of Bejaia, known for its minority Amazigh (or Berber) population, ballot boxes and scattering votes across the playground. The area is known for its strong support of the protests and many of its workers have been on strike for the last two days.
While overseas polling booths opened on Saturday, they have been scarcely attended, according to media reports, even though expats make up 20 per cent of the total voting population.
Opposing the suggestion that there would be a low turnout for Thursday’s vote, the Independent National Committee for elections told reporters on Thursday afternoon that there had so far been a big turnout.
When asked about the video, the committee’s Vice President Abdelhafid Milat said that in any election you will find people trying to disturb proceedings but that it was a small isolated incident.
On the topic of vote rigging, Mr Milat said that there have been no cases reported so far and they continued to monitor the situation. Unverified videos circulating on social media claimed to show ballot boxes being tampered with and there have been accusations of vote fraud in previous elections.
In the provinces of Naama, Tamenraset and Adrar, where the government allocates mobile polling stations for nomads, voter turnout was announced on Wednesday night at 34,000, 25,000 and 52,000 respectively. Polls were scheduled to close at 1900 local time but the result may not be announced until Friday.
But in preliminary voter figures provided by head of the comittee Mohammed Charfi, some of the key provinces had a turn out as of Thursday afternoon of around 10 per cent, although Algiers was not included in the figures. The total number of registered voters is 24.5 million and polls are set to close at 6pm local time.
The UAE had a turnout of 14 per cent, Tunisia 15 per cent and Lyon 11.3 per cent.
Large protests began in February and had within six weeks forced the resignation of Bouteflika. They are now demanding a complete change of the political system.
Despite some concessions aimed at showing the public that the government was willing and able to reform, such as the conviction of two former prime ministers on corruption charges earlier this week, Algerians have continued to take to the streets, chanting “no to the election”.
They argue that the vote will not be transparent or fair and that the candidates are part of the ruling elite that has controlled Algeria since independence from France in 1962.
The five men running for president either supported Mr Bouteflika or participated in his government and, in the country’s first ever televised political debate earlier this week, they failed to impress with their rigid answers in what was seen as a missed opportunity.
However, former prime minister and presidential candidate Ali Benflis said that if elected, his “top priority would be to engage in a dialogue with the opponents of the presidential election”.
“They have the right to have a point of view contrary to mine, but we must come together to reflect on political reforms,” he said.
Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, who triggered the legislature that forced the 82-year-old Mr Bouteflika to step down due to ill health and has since become the country’s most powerful political player, pushed for the vote as the only way to end the crisis.
Who is the protest movement and what do they want?
The Hirak movement, as it has become known after the Arabic word for mobilisation, grew out of the weekly protests that were triggered in February by the announcement that former president Mr Bouteflika was to stand for a fifth term. Had he been successful it would have violated constitutional limits to presidential mandates and he had been almost completely absent from public life after suffering a stroke in 2013.
They seek political reform in a country where almost 50 per cent of the population is under 30, but that is dominated by men over 50, and to a lesser level improvements to infrastructure, housing and the jobs market.
As persistent as the Hong Kong protests, the Algerian demonstrations have been peaceful, avoiding the bloodshed seen recently in Iraq and skirmishes seen in Lebanon. However, scores have been arrested, including journalists and opposition figures.
Thousands of mostly protesters take to the streets every Friday after prayers, and on Tuesdays students take to the street.
While some praise the military for punitive actions against high-ranking officials, others say they are propping up the ruling elite. On November 1, for the 65th anniversary of independence from France, millions took to the streets likening their struggle to the historic fight for freedom from their former colonial ruler.
Updated: December 12, 2019 07:06 PM
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