Algiers, Algeria – Polls have closed in Algeria where a contentious presidential election, boycotted by tens of thousdans of protesters nationwide and dismissed as a “sham,” was held.
Anti-riot police were deployed early on Thursday to block access to Maurice Audin Square and the iconic Grand Post office in central Algiers, the epicentre of the months-long protests demanding the departure of the old guard and an overhaul of the political system.
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Voter turnout stood at 33 percent at 5pm local time (16:00 GMT), just two hours before polls closed, according to Algeria’s independent election monitoring authority. More than 24 million people are eligible to vote.
In a tense Algiers, demonstrators chanted slogans such as “There is no vote today,” Independence” and “No vote with the mafia” as they fought off attempts by security forces to disperse the crowds.
Describing the vote as a “charade”, Majid Belghout, a 54-year-old architect, dismissed the election as an “attempt by the old guard to regenerate itself”.
“A free election can only take place in Algeria after a democratic process. We are only at the beginning of this process,” Belghout said, reiterating the protesters’ demand for sweeping reforms before any meaningful vote takes place.
“We are only at the beginning of this process,” he added. “It is not the time to vote, but it is the moment to move to a national democratic and independent debate. This is the only way to reach a consensus on Algeria’s future.”
In Kabylie, a northern mountainous region with a long history of government opposition, the demonstrations turned violent as some protesters entered a polling station in Tizi Ouzou, located 125km (78 miles) east of Algiers, tossing ballot papers into the air, according to local media. Unrest also erupted in Bouira, located some 100km (62 miles) east of Algiers, where protesters set the headquarters of the Algeria’s independent monitoring election authority on fire.
— INTERLIGNES (@inter_lignes) December 12, 2019
Preliminary results are expected from 23:00 GMT onwards, however, final results likely will not come until at least Friday.
Five candidates are running to replace former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stepped down in April in the face of months-long protests, 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.
“Algerians today are aware that they need the massive popular legitimacy,” Mihoubi told reporters after casting his ballot.
“That’s why we are noticing since this morning thousands of Algerians going to polling stations, and this is the real answer to those who were doubting that this day won’t realise what people hoped for.”
But in Algiers, many of the polling stations were largely deserted. According to a vote observer, a municipal employee in his 40s, the ballot boxes were far from being full with envelopes. “The turnout is seemingly similar to the 2014 presidential election”, he said, referring to the vote five years ago that saw a turnout of 51.7 percent.
A voter in the capital described the election as the “sole solution” to resolve the country’s political impasse. “The overhaul of the leadership will come from the election, not from demonstrating”, said Mourad, a 31-year-old cook.
‘Elite enriched itself at people’s expense’
But critics say all five candidates are “part of the ruling establishment” and should be purged because of their ties to the unpopular former government.
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 political life.
Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who emerged as the country’s de facto leader following Bouteflika’s departure, maintained that the election is the only to break the country’s political deadlock, insisting the army high command will not back any candidate in the race.
Despite the candidates’ ties to Bouteflika, Mohamed, a 25-year-old waiter, cast a ballot out of fear the country could plunge into “chaos”. “The choice of candidates is poor but this is the only choice we have. The situation is extremely precarious. We can no longer afford to stay in this political turmoil. We need political stability.”
But Louiza, a 20-year-old French literature student protesting in Algiers, said she was boycotting the vote.
“We have all the reasons to take to the street today instead of going to a polling station: rising unemployment, rampant corruption, people being deprived of their civil and political rights,” she told Al Jazeera, draped in the country’s flag.
“The ruling elite has enriched itself at people’s expense and they want to continue to plunder the country’s wealth. You cannot accept it if you aspire to have a bright future in this country”, she said, while shouting “simlyia” (peaceful) towards the police.
— Khaled Drareni (@khaleddrareni) December 12, 2019
In the crowd, many said that the government has turned a deaf ear to protesters’ demands.
“The authorities don’t see us as citizens. There is no consideration for the Algerian people, they are disdainful”, said Rachida, a 53-year-old public worker, who joined the sit-in in central Algiers with her sister and her niece.
“They have batons, we have ideas. Despite their violence, we will remain peaceful, this is the main strength of this movement.”
Members of the leaderless movement also criticised officials’ comments against the anti-vote activists.
Last week, Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune described the protesters who fiercely rejected the vote as “traitors” and “mercenaries”.
“We are not conspirators, neither manipulated by foreign groups,” Said, a 60-year-old engineer, who held a sign reading “no to a forced election”, told Al Jazeera.
“We have been taking the streets to honour the heritage of the millions of martyrs who gave their life to see an independent and democratic Algeria,” he said. “The administration has betrayed this heritage for far too long. Enough! Enough of the long-standing military rule.”