Demonstrators demand sweeping, systemic political change before any presidential vote takes place.
Thursday’s presidential vote is unpopular across Algeria.
Mass protests, which forced ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April after his nearly 20 years of rule, have taken place weekly across the country for months demanding sweeping reforms ahead of any vote.
All five approved candidates either supported Bouteflika or participated in his government.
Here are four key points about the controversial vote.
Who all are running?
In November, the head of Algeria’s Independent Election Monitoring Authority (NIEMA) named the five candidates who will face-off in the country’s presidential race.
The frontrunners, Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, are both former prime ministers.
Tebboune served in that role for less than three months in 2017. He was then dismissed by then-President Bouteflika and replaced by Ahmed Ouyahia.
Ali Benflis was the prime minister before Tebboune, from 2000 to 2003. After serving that role, he was chosen as the general secretary of Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party. He also ran twice against Bouteflika to become president.
The third candidate, Azzedine Mihoubi, is a former journalist and author who now serves as Algeria’s minister of culture. He was also the chief executive of the state-owned radio station.
Abdelaziz Belaid, the fourth candidate, is the founder and leader of the El-Moustakbal (Future) Front party. Like Benflis, he is also a former member of the FLN. He ran in the 2014 election and received less than 4 percent of the vote – which earned him a spot in third place.
The fifth candidate, Abdelkader Bengrina, is the current head of the Islamist El-Binaa party. He served as Algeria’s tourism minister from 1997 to 1999.
They all took part in a televised debate last week – the first of its kind in Algerian history.
Why are protesters rejecting the vote?
Anti-government protesters view all candidates as part of the previous regime. They say elections will not be free or fair, and accuse candidates of having either supported or served in Bouteflika’s ruling elite before he was forced to resign in April when confronted by the mass demonstrations.
Last Friday marked the 42nd consecutive week of the popular movement known as the “hirak”. Demonstrators took to the streets in large numbers – not only in Algeria, but in several different cities throughout the world.
— Khaled Drareni (@khaleddrareni) December 7, 2019
Throughout the week, Algerian expats in France, Canada, and the United States held their own rallies in front of consulates in an effort to bring attention to potential voters, preventing them from supporting the election.
Mouloud Bourbet, an Algerian community activist based in the US, was part of demonstrations held outside a polling station in Chicago. He said despite the rallies, some still went ahead to cast their ballots.
“What happened is they waited until we left the polling station, and one hour before it closed they posted on social media saying that they voted.”
According to Bourbet, the few who voted did so because of their own lack of knowledge.
“Some people don’t believe in the revolution and unfortunately they’re attached to the former regime. Those are the people who believe the military took over the power with good faith and for the benefit of the population, which is not the case,” said Bourbet. “The military has been linked to the old regime since Algeria’s independence.”
Algerians in San Francisco reported that only 14 people voted on an electoral roll of 3,000. Dozens of protesters there sat in the pouring rain to raise their voice against the elections.
Presidential elections in San Francisco turned into a Fiasco. Only 14 individuals voted on an electoral roll of 3000, that’s a mere 0.4%. The polling station closed at 16:00 instead of 20:00. Here are some testimonials of this flop
— Algerians in the USA – Algériens d'Amérique (@usaAlgerians) December 8, 2019
What has been the government’s response?
The army says Thursday’s election is the only way to end the standoff with the opposition. Meanwhile, three former political leaders were sentenced to lengthy prison terms just two days before the polls were scheduled to open.
“It’s not a coincidence,” said Adel Rahmani, a protester based between France and Algeria.
“Think of it this way: there’s a big cake and everybody was taking a piece of that cake, [which] started to become smaller and smaller. That’s why [the military] decided to put some of its members out of their game, to have a bigger piece of that cake. And that’s why Gaid Salah did what he did with Ouyahia and [other officials] linked to the old regime.”
Ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia was sentenced to 15 years in prison and his predecessor Abdelmalek Sellal received a slightly shorter sentence of 12 years. An international arrest warrant was issued for former Industry Minister Abdesslam Bouchouareb, who has not been in the country. In his absence, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
While these developments may seem like a step towards justice for protesters at first glance, many have not been convinced the moves will bring about much change in the long run.
“These sentences could have been a great step and a real transition to democracy if they were made in a different way,” said Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“These people are tried by the military court and that, as a matter of fact, shows the exact and the very nature of the Algerian regime – there is actually a military one. It is at the end of the day the military who holds the reins of power. The etat-major is in the drivers’ seat. Algerians are not against this trial, but they want them to be more transparent.”
What is next?
Protesters such as Bourbet are determined to continue demonstrating, even after the elections are over.
“Our job is to get organised and unite to build a strong power in order to push [the whole system] to go away.”
Meanwhile, Ghanem said she expects the turnout to remain low.
“This will clearly put the newly elected president in a very fragile position. He will lack legitimacy and he will be put under enormous pressure by the protesters … and by the military who brought him in power,” said Ghanem.
“For now, we don’t know the next move of the security forces, whether [they are] going to crack down severely on protesters, or whether they will just capitalise and rely on internal division, or whether they will just continue to ignore people’s demands, [and rely] on the exhaustion of the popular movement.”
Others, such as Youcef Bouandel, a political science professor at Qatar University, said the system will remain static.
“The elections are simply a smokescreen for the conservation of [the regime]. It gives the impression that something is happening … but in reality, nothing changes. Another person will not change the type and the nature of this authoritarian political system that has been in existence over the last six decades, since [Algeria’s] independence in 1962.”