Algerians cast votes in presidential poll

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, seen by opposition as unfit for fourth mandate amid ailing health, is expected to win election.

    Algerians have started casting their votes in presidential elections that are likely to lead to Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fourth mandate, despite wide expections of a low turnout and amid calls for a boycott with the opposition warning of rigged results.

    More than 260,000 police have been deployed to protect the 50,000 polling booths opening on Thursday across Africa's largest country. Around 23 million Algerians have registered on the electoral roll  as eligible voters in Algeria and abroad to choose between the six contesting candidates.

    Bouteflika, 77, who is seeking to extend his 15-year rule despite chronic health problems, is the firm favourite.

    He has appeared only rarely on television in recent months, looking frail, after suffering a mini-stroke last year which confined him to hospital in France for three months.

    His weakness was adamant as he sat on a wheel chair while casting his vote at an Algiers polling station on Thursday. Local media had rumoured that he would not be able to cast his vote in person due to his health condition.

    But with opposition parties and youth activists loudly calling on Algerians to snub the poll, and many questioning his ability to rule, Bouteflika faces the risk of a damaging low turnout.

    His intention to seek re-election was announced in February, prompting derision from his critics.

    Youth protest group

    According to the Interior Ministry, turnout has already 15 percent.

    Interior Minister Tayeb Belaïz said that the thusfar-reached turnout is "an increase when compared to that recorded during the 2009 election" at the same time, adding that "clues point to the participation rate will increase in later today". He added that voting is taking place under "ordinary conditions". 

    Algeria, which has largely escaped the massive political alterations brought about by the "Arab Spring", has witnessed sporadic election-related violence in the weeks leading up to the polls.

    Youth protest group Barakat (Enough), a rare public expression of the anger and frustration felt by some Algerians towards political authoritarianism, was founded just two months ago specifically to oppose the president's bid for a
    fourth term.

    Police violently dispersed a demonstration the group organised in Algiers on Wednesday and arrested some of its members.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both voiced concerns about efforts by the authorities to restrict freedom of speech ahead of the vote, while Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday highlighted the difficulties faced by journalists trying to cover it.

    Out of the total six candidates, the president's main rival, former prime minister Ali Benflis who ran against Bouteflika in 2004 but lost heavily, said fraud will be his "main adversary" on Thursday. 

    Benflis warned that he would "not keep quiet" if the election is stolen.

    Despite the sometimes scathing criticism levelled against him in the independent media, Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians.

    He is credited for helping to end the devastating civil war of the 1990s, and containing the social unrest that spread to Algeria in January 2011 by offering political reforms, lifting a 19-year state of emergency and raising wages.



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