Unrest Marks Algerian Election, as Protesters Boycott the Vote

Unrest Marks Algerian Election, as Protesters Boycott the Vote

Crowds in Algeria sacked voting stations on Thursday and the police used force to break up demonstrations, as the authorities went ahead with a presidential vote in the face of a popular boycott by a movement that toppled a president early this year.

The police beat back protesters with truncheons, but large crowds protesting the election continued to assemble in central Algiers. A polling station in the city center was stormed, forcing a temporary suspension of the vote, and unrest was reported around polling stations in the mountainous Kabylie region, traditionally hostile to the authorities.

The vote is the first since a popular uprising — mass protests denouncing pervasive corruption — chased out Algeria’s long-ruling president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. An “interim government” of his former allies was quickly installed, backed by the army.

Since then the protesters, who for months have assembled peacefully every week in the streets of Algiers and other cities, have demanded a complete overhaul of what they call “the system” — an end to the careers of all those associated with Mr. Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for 20 years.

Instead, the aging generals who have been the country’s ultimate arbiters for generations, insisted on holding an election that was broadly rejected from the start by much of the population.

The strange campaign that followed — empty meeting halls, tight security for candidates, posters torn down everywhere — spoke to what was likely to be a low turnout.

The five candidates competing in Thursday’s vote all worked for Mr. Bouteflika, and two served as his prime minister.

That, say the protesters, is the problem: the generals are simply trying to recycle the Bouteflika regime, giving it an electoral facade. Mr. Bouteflika himself used the tactic for years, staging elections whose legitimacy was widely questioned.

“Algerians don’t agree with this type of election,” said Nacer Djabi, a widely respected sociologist, in an interview on Thursday in Algiers. “Obviously they are not against elections. But they are against the conditions in which this election is unfolding, and they are afraid that these elections will simply reproduce the same system, the same faces, the same policies, the same corruption.”

Calls for an election boycott have been sounded ever since the vote was announced in September, and observers noted sparse participation at many, though not all, polling stations on Thursday. Turnout in Algeria’s vast desert hinterlands appeared to be higher than in the cities.

“This election has been imposed, and given what’s been seen every week, it seems clear that the vast majority of citizens won’t go to the polls,” the independent newspaper El Watan wrote in an editorial on Thursday.

In Algiers, the police were out in force, with police vans and anti-riot trucks lining the streets. They moved quickly Thursday to break up an anti-election demonstration in the center of Algiers, beating protesters and arresting about a dozen. French television showed officers in riot gear rounding on a protester, kicking and beating him.

On Wednesday night, the police had sealed off the capital’s main boulevards, hoping to prevent crowds from gathering. The tactic did not work, however, as a considerable number of protesters had assembled in front of the central post office, for months the main gathering spot, by Thursday afternoon.

The two leading contenders in the vote on Thursday are thought to be former prime ministers Ali Benflis, 75, whose recent pre-election rally had to be protected from protesters by the police with tear gas and water cannons, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74.

Both the candidates and the army general who exercises real power in Algeria, Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, 79, have tried to win over the demonstrators. Unpopular figures associated with the old order have been sentenced to jail, including Mr. Bouteflika’s brother, Said, and a host of leading businessmen accused of corrupt complicity with the government. And the candidates, at their near-empty meetings, have insisted that they sympathize with the goals of the protest movement. They have been heckled and jeered nonetheless.

The protest movement has rejected the candidates’ overtures. Mistrust is total. Lately, the government has lashed out against the protesters.

“There’s a neocolonialist school of thinking which makes use of some Algerians, or rather pseudo-Algerians — traitors, mercenaries, homosexuals,” said the interior minister, Salah Eddine Dahmoune. “We know who they are.”

General Salah, himself, has issued veiled warnings.

The election is taking place amid an economic crisis, and whoever wins will immediately face budgetary and unemployment problems. But the new president will be widely seen as lacking the legitimacy to tackle those challenges.

Algeria, Africa’s third-biggest oil producer, depends on oil and gas for 95 percent of its exports. But the price of oil is about half of what it needs for the government to balance its budget.

The arrest and jailing of leading businessmen has meant frozen payrolls and layoffs. Analysts estimate that 60 percent of businesses have stopped their activities.

“We’re going to have a president who will not have legitimacy at the national level, and who can’t be legitimate internationally,” said Mr. Djabi, the sociologist. “This president will be weak in the sense that he won’t be able to solve economic and social problems. A president who is badly elected can’t solve the Algerians’ problems.”

Hadjer Guenanfa contributed reporting from Algiers.

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