After nearly ten months of massive and unprecedented popular protest that took President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerians vote Thursday to elect his successor in a presidential election perceived as a maneuver for the survival of the regime.
The approximately 61,000 offices have opened as planned at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) across the country, according to the official news agency APS. In Bab el Oued, a hundred voters, including many young people, was already crowded, against all odds, in front of the main polling station of this popular district of Algiers, said a journalist from AFP.
The « Hirak », an anti-regime movement born on February 22nd, which got the resignation in April of Mr. Bouteflika, showed no sign of breathlessness and remains fiercely opposed to this election that the power, at the hands of the army, wants to organize whatever the cost, despite a tense context.
The movement denounces an “electoral masquerade”, demands more than ever the end of the “system” in power since independence in 1962 and the departure of all those who supported or took part in the 20 years of presidency of Mr. Bouteflika.
The five candidates are all considered by the protest as children of this « system ».
On Friday, the last weekly demonstration before the election gathered a huge crowd, showing the extent of the rejection.
And, less than 24 hours before the polls, thousands of demonstrators still displayed their determination in Algiers on Wednesday with cries of “No vote!” They forced a large police force which could only disperse them by charging violently.
Polling stations must close at 7:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. GMT), but no figures should be available immediately. In previous elections, the turnout had been announced late in the evening, and the results the next day.
Call for calm
Depending on the result, a second round could take place in the coming weeks.
In the absence of polls in Algeria, it is difficult to predict how much of the 24 million voters will vote in a country where participation in recent years was traditionally low. But most observers expect a very strong abstention, while the government repeats that the participation will be « massive ».
The polling stations of the Algerian consulates abroad, where the poll started on Saturday, gave an indication: almost empty polling stations, in front of which demonstrators conspire the rare citizens who came to vote.
« None of the five candidates can hope to be considered legitimate » by the protesters and « the vote will be boycotted on a large scale, » says Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director of the risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft .
On Wednesday, figures close to “Hirak”, including lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi and academics Nacer Djabi and Louisa Dris-Aït Hammadouche, warned of the context of “strong tensions” around the polls and called for calm.
In a text, they called on the authorities « to renounce provocative speeches, to use the language of threat and to stop accusing every citizen of opinion that is contrary to that of power ». They made the latter « responsible for any possible slippage in the coming days ».
These figures also urged protesters to « remain peaceful » by refusing to « respond to provocations » and by taking care « not to prevent the exercise by other citizens of their right to express themselves freely ».
Against the « system »
The electoral campaign was complicated for the five candidates (Abdelaziz Belaïd, Ali Benflis, Abdelkader Bengrina, Azzedine Mihoubi and Abdelmajid Tebboune), who were regularly greeted by hostile demonstrators and struggled to fill the halls.
The « Hirak » accuses them of endorsing the « system » by introducing themselves, and raises their past within the Bouteflika apparatus. All supported this presidency, or even participated in it: MM. Tebboune and Benflis were Prime Ministers and Mr. Mihoubi Minister.
« How can we trust those who betrayed the country and helped Bouteflika? » Summed up a protestor in Algiers on Wednesday.
Pillar of the regime, historically accustomed to the backstage, the high command of the army has openly assumed power since the resignation of Mr. Bouteflika.
After a first failed election attempt in July, he stubbornly wanted to quickly elect a successor in order to get out of the current politico-institutional crisis, which had worsened an already complicated economic situation.
General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, chief of staff and public face of this high command, « does not want to be held responsible for the increasingly negative economic outlook, » said Anthony Skinner.
He “much prefers to have an elected president who will find himself directly in the crosshairs (of the dispute) and will have the unenviable task of reforming the economy” of the largest country on the African continent, with more than 40 million ‘inhabitants, he said.
The lack of legitimacy of the future president, who will officially succeed interim head of state Abdelkader Bensalah, is already taken for granted by observers. They provide for a continuation of the challenge.