Algiers, Algeria – Polls have opened in a controversial presidential election with critics saying all candidates should be purged because of their ties to the unpopular former government.
Thursday’s vote is the first since former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out after a two-decade-long rule in April in the wake of nationwide peaceful protests.
The vote has been deferred twice since the unprecedented leaderless protest movement, commonly referred to as the Hirak, erupted in February.
Polls opened at 07:00 GMT and will close at 21:00 GMT, though that can be extended. Preliminary results are expected from 23:00 GMT onwards, however, final results likely won’t come until at least Friday.
To win the election, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the votes cast. If no one manages to do that, the two leading candidates then go to a runoff in a few weeks.
More than 24 million people are eligible to vote, but many were expected to stay at home to boycott an election they say is designed to preserve the status quo.
Opponents of the vote say no election can be free or fair as long as the old guard remains in power and the military continues to be involved in the country’s political life.
Mohamed Kirat from Qatar University said demonstrators on the streets had wanted “radical change of the political system” from the beginning of the uprising, something that has failed to materialise.
“The five candidates for the presidency are from the former regime, so what kinds of things are they going to bring to their agenda?” Kirat told Al Jazeera.
“There are so many chances to manipulate the vote and that is why people don’t want to go. I don’t think we will have more than 50 percent of people voting today.”
Overseas, the electoral procedure began last Saturday.
In several French cities, including Paris, Algerian protesters staged anti-election sit-ins in front of polling booths.
According to Algeria’s Independent Election Monitoring Authority (ANIE) – created in September to oversee the vote – 20 percent of the 900,000 Algerians living abroad already voted.
Demonstrators were determined to have Thursday’s election cancelled.
On Wednesday – the anniversary of the outbreak of major demonstrations against the French colonial power in Algeria in 1960 – thousands of Algerians flooded the streets of the capital to reject the presidential vote.
Anti-riot forces violently dispersed the demonstration, injuring dozens of people.
Despite the nine-month-long protest movement, the army has touted the election as the only way out of the political crisis, and urged voters to turn out in large numbers.
Five candidates are running to replace Bouteflika for a five-year term: former Prime Ministers Ali Benflis and Abdelamajid Tebboune; former Minister of Tourism Abdelakader Bengrina; former Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi; and head of the el-Moutstakbal party Abdelaziz Belaid.
But all are seen as “part of the ruling establishment”, according to critics.