Parliamentary elections under way in Algeria

Low turnout expected in what officials say will be most open vote in country largely spared Arab Spring unrest.

Voting has begun across Algeria for the parliamentary elections, which authorities have pledged will be the most open in the country’s history.

More than 48,000 polling stations in the North African country opened on Thursday at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), many under tight police surveillance.

State television showed live footage of voters pouring into a polling station as soon as the doors opened and jostling to be the first to cast their ballot.

Nearly 22 million Algerians are registered to vote for 44 parties, half of which were just legalised this year, for a parliament that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promises will have a say in rewriting the constitution.

But after decades of repression and rigged contests, turnout in the vote may not surpass the 35 per cent seen in the last elections in 2007.

The first results are due on Friday but a turnout estimate, the most important figure in the election given many Algerians are expected to boycott the vote, is due after polling stations close at  7:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Algeria’s youth, who account for close to three quarters of the 37 million inhabitants, looks set to abstain en masse amid fears over the vote’s credibility and deep distrust of the political class.

In messages exchanged on Facebook, some young Algerians were wishing one another a “happy no-vote day”.

Hacene Ferhati, an activist with SOS Disparus, an association which fights for justice in the cases of Algerian citizens who were forcibly disappeared by government forces during the civil war in the 1990s, said he would not be voting.

“I have decided not to vote because le pouvoir [the Algerian regime] has been lying to us for 50 years,” he told Al Jazeera. “There is extensive vote-rigging every time, and why would this time be any different?”

Algeria scrapped its one-party system in 1989, but in 1991 the government cancelled general elections after the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of voting. Cancellation of that election led to a decade of violence in which about 200,000 people were killed.

Soaring cost of living

Social discontent and deadly riots briefly rattled Algeria in January 2011, but the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed the region last year have largely bypassed Algeria.

The election campaign has focused on unemployment, which officially stands at 10 per cent but is believed to be almost twice as high, housing issues and the soaring cost of living.

A spokesperson for the Green Alliance, an alliance of three officially sanctioned Islamist parties, told Al Jazeera that the group was expecting to replace Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) as the major political force in Algerian politics.

Kamel Mida, press officer for the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP), one of the three parties, said the campaign had been a successful one.

“We have been really active on the ground and have been going door-to-door, to convince them to vote for our lists,” he said.

The FLN, which has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly, currently sits in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Ahmed Ouyahia, Algerian prime minister, and the MSP, the main legal Islamist party.

Equal time to parties

During the campaign, the state media for the first time gave something resembling equal time to opposition parties.

Bouteflika has been promising reforms and free elections with international observers.

A total of 500 observers from the EU, African Union, Arab League and American organisations will be scattered across the more than 48,000 polling stations in the country, Africa’s largest.

“There was the Arab Spring, so the government decided to have free elections and I think this is for external consumption,” said Nour-Eddine Benissad, president of Algeria’s League for the Defence of Human Rights.

“I don’t think there is a real will to remake the political scene.”

But the Socialist Forces Front, one of the few credible opposition parties, welcomed the international presence as a step forward for Algerian democracy.

“The Western democracies will no longer allow the falsification of the will of a people, so there is a glimmer of hope that these elections will not be rigged,” said Mustefa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer heading the party’s list in Algiers.

— Additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies