Thousands of people took to the streets in Algiers and other cities on Thursday chanting “No vote! We want freedom!” as Algerian authorities held a presidential election that protesters view as a charade to keep the ruling elite in power.
In the capital, police rushed the crowd with sticks to disperse the marchers, but fell back as more protesters arrived. One young man of about 25 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 protests 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 that won approval to stand are former senior officials.
No result is expected on Thursday but the government will release figures for voter turnout, which may show how many people view the process as legitimate. There are no independent observers and protesters may question those figures.
In central Algiers some people were voting as police patrolled the streets on foot and in vehicles. A helicopter circled overhead.
“I WILL NOT VOTE AGAINST MY COUNTRY”
“The country has entered a critical phase,” said Aziz Djibali, 56, who went to vote at a polling station near the prime minister’s office. “It’s time for Algerians to voice their opinions peacefully.”
But Djamel Faradji, among thousands protesting on the capital’s central Didouche Mourad boulevard, waved a flag that read: “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 that the protests are peaceful. Protests would continue despite the apparent defiance of the authorities, he said.
Others who did not join the protests also seemed ambivalent at best. “What is the benefit of voting?” asked Salim Bairi, a schoolteacher sitting a central cafe. Kamel Moumni, 36, waiting for a taxi driver to take him to a dentist, said he hadn’t voted for years. “I will not change my mind today,” he said.
The five presidential candidates are ex-prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, ex-culture minister Azzedddine 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 9% fall in public spending next year.
Video posted online showed other demonstrations in Oran, Constantine and other cities. In the Kabylie region, protesters destroyed ballot boxes in the town of Bejaia, and took to the streets in the town of Haizer, chanting “No vote”, as the polling stations stayed shut.
The area – 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 people – has been a centre of this year’s protests.
Aissa Ait Mohand, 22, an unemployed farmer’s son, said young people in the area saw the election as a “trick” by the authorities to stay in power: “The government is corrupt. It has to be uprooted one way or another.”
However, some people in Haizer support the election, including former Islamist fighters who laid down their arms 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.”