A record six in 10 Algerians abstained from voting in the country’s presidential election that was firmly rejected by the nine-month-old protest movement.
Just under 40 percent of registered voters cast a ballot on Thursday, said electoral authority chief Mohamed Charfi, speaking on national television.
Charfi said the turnout among Algerians living in the country was a little over 41 percent and close to nine percent among its nationals living abroad, the lowest rate for a multi-party election in the country’s history.
The unpopular vote comes after a street protest movement in April ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, following two decades in office.
Tens of thousands rallied in central Algiers, defying a heavy police presence backed by water cannon and helicopters, and despite the arrests of at least 10 activists meant to prevent a repeat of the previous day’s anti-election rallies.
“The people want independence,” they chanted after breaking through a police cordon and filling the streets outside the Central Post Office, their symbolic meeting place in more than 40 weeks of rallies.
A group stormed a polling station in the capital, suspending voting there for about half an hour, before police pushed them out again, AFP reporters witnessed.
Unrest also erupted in the northern mountain region of Kabylie, home to much of the country’s Berber minority, where groups “ransacked the ballot boxes and destroyed part of the electoral lists” in Bejaia, a resident said.
Video footage shared on social media, purportedly from a polling station there, showed dozens of people tossing ballot papers into the air and stamping on them, while clips from other cities showed large demonstrations.
Crowds also surrounded a government building in Tizi Ouzou, where security forces fired teargas to repel them.
Mohamed Lagab, a spokesman from candidate Abdelmajid Tebboune’s campaign team, said an election monitor was killed Thursday when “his wife was attacked at a polling station”. According to Lagab, an unnamed “political party” was behind the attack, in an effort to intimidate voters to cast their vote for Tebboune.
“In several regions […] certain parties supporting [another] candidate have started to use violence and threats. Near some polling stations, there have been financial incentives. MPs and senators have intervened in several communes.”
‘Children of the regime’
Five candidates are in the running, all of them widely rejected as “children of the regime” of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was ousted in April after two decades in office.
Among them are two of the ousted leader’s former prime ministers – Tebboune, 74, and Ali Benflis, 75 – and a former minister, Azzedine Mihoubi.
While only a trickle of voters cast their ballots in some districts, national television showed longer queues elsewhere, leading some online commentators to wonder “how much they have been paid”.
At 5pm local time, voter turnout stood at 33 percent, according to Algerian television. Three hours earlier, participation had been recorded at just over 20 percent – below the 23 percent recorded at the same time of day in elections five years ago, when total participation reached 50.7 percent.
Polls closed at 7pm local time and preliminary results are expected on Friday. Official results will come later this month and a possible second-round run-off would take place in early January.
Whoever wins will struggle to be accepted by the electorate in the north African country, where many citizens rail against a military-backed 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.
He predicted that “the vote will be boycotted on a large scale”.
‘No to the system’
In an early indication of mass abstentions, polling stations at Algerian embassies abroad stayed almost empty since they opened Saturday, with the few expatriates who did show up weathering insults by protesters.
The “Hirak” street movement kicked off when Bouteflika, 82, 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 resolve the political crisis.
Demonstrators have also directed their ire at the powerful 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.
All of them in the past either supported Bouteflika or participated in his government — two as prime ministers and one as a minister.
This week saw Algerian courts hand down heavy jail sentences in high-profile corruption trials for two other former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal.
>> Algeria jails two Bouteflika-era PMs in landmark corruption trial
But even those verdicts did little to win over the protesters, who see the trials as little more than a high-level purge in a struggle between still-powerful regime insiders.
Protests have been illegal in Algiers since 2001 and police have only tolerated weekly Hirak protests on Fridays and student marches on Tuesdays.
Wednesday marked the anniversary of the outbreak of major demonstrations against French colonial power in Algeria in 1960, and calls online urged protesters to converge on the Algiers square commemorating it.
Meriem, a 62-year-old Algiers resident, marched with her daughter and daughter-in-law brandishing red cards to oppose the election.
“I’m marching to say no to the vote,” she said, “no to the Bouteflika system without Bouteflika.”