Algerians vote amid anger over economy

Abdellah Cheballah
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An Algerian man casts his vote at a polling station in Algiers on May 4, 2017

Algerians voted Thursday for a new parliament amid soaring unemployment and a deep financial crisis caused by a collapse in oil revenues.

But despite urgent challenges facing the country, candidates have struggled to inspire voters disillusioned by what many see as broken government promises and a tainted political system.

"Corruption has plagued politics. How can you vote for a candidate who has paid to be selected by a party?" asked Ali, a merchant in the town of Blida, 45 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Algiers.

He was referring to a scandal which has filled Algerian newspapers of candidates having paid for their names to be added to party lists.

The North African country weathered the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings with massive spending on wages and subsidies that depleted government coffers.

But a 2014 slump in crude oil prices forced the government to raise taxes and mothball many public projects.

Today, in a country of 40 million where half the population is under 30, one young person in three is unemployed.

Some 45,000 police officers were deployed Thursday to guard the more than 53,000 polling stations across the country.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, voted from a wheelchair at a polling booth in Algiers.

It was the ailing 80-year-old leader's first appearance before the international media since he was sworn in for a fourth term in April 2014.

Wearing a suit and tie, he went behind a curtain to mark his ballot, which one of his nephews slipped into the box, and posed for photographers without making any comment.

- 'Facade' -

Voting was extended by an hour in 42 of the 48 electoral districts, closing at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), and the first results are expected late on Friday morning.

Algerians have shown little enthusiasm for the election. Streets of the capital were nearly deserted in the morning.

Interior Minister Nourredine Bedoui told state television voter participation at 5:00 pm stood at 35.53 percent.

French-language daily El Watan spoke of "popular disinterest in this election", widely expected to maintain the dominance of the two pro-Bouteflika parties in parliament.

Blida's cafes filled with men who sat discussing the election, but not all planned to vote.

"This facade of a parliament should be abolished. The government passes all its laws, even the most controversial ones," said Hocine, 35.

Mohamed, 65, said he was voting "to elect deputies who will relay the demands and the struggles of the society. This is the only issue in this election".

But officials, fearing a low turnout and public apathy, spent weeks urging people to take part.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal called for a "massive vote", urging women to wake their husbands early, refuse them coffee and "drag" them to the polling stations.

"If they resist, hit them with a stick," he told an all-female audience in the eastern city of Setif.

Bouteflika has said a strong turnout was essential for the country's stability.

The authorities have also used mosques to spread the message, with imams urging Algerians to go to the polls.

- Islamist alliances -

Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN) and its coalition ally, the Rally for National Democracy (RND), have enjoyed a comfortable majority since a 2012 poll, which they are expected to retain.

But Nourredine Bekis, professor of sociology at the University of Algiers, said parliamentarians had little real influence.

"The president holds all the power," Bekis said.

Islamists, who held 60 seats in the outgoing parliament, represent the country's main opposition force.

In 2012, they had hoped they could replicate the gains of their peers in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring, but they suffered their worst ever electoral defeat.

This year, they have formed two electoral alliances in bids to do better.

But since Algeria adopted a multi-party system in 1989, the opposition has repeatedly accused the ruling parties of electoral fraud.

Turnout in 2012 reached just over 43 percent. Experts say even that figure was inflated.

But 80-year-old Si Sadou Yamina said Thursday she was voting to do her "duty".

Battling pain, diabetes and hypertension, she arrived at a polling booth in Blida before it even opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).

"I've never missed a vote, and I'm not going to start today," she said.