Africa

Algeria election: Thousands march to protest in Algiers

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest to reject the presidential election in Algiers, Algeria December 12, 2019 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The protesters ignored a heavy police presence on the streets of Algiers

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of the Algerian capital, Algiers, to protest against Thursday's presidential election.

They briefly overran a polling station. An attempt by police to disperse the crowd failed.

Two more voting centres were stormed in the Kabylie region, east of the capital.

The vote follows the ousting of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to resign in April.

He had been in power for two decades, but was ousted following anti-government demonstrations across the country.

The protesters have continued to demand the sweeping away of Algeria's entire political establishment, and they are boycotting the election.

All five candidates standing were closely linked with the rule of ex-President Bouteflika.

Why are people unhappy?

For close to a year, thousands of Algerians have protested every Friday in Algiers and other cities across the country against any elections under the current government.

They want all officials associated with the regime of ousted President Bouteflika to be removed from office, including interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Nouredine Bedoui.

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Media captionAlgeria election: Five things to know

"No election with the gangs", "they must all be removed" protesters have chanted week after week, referring to the politicians and businessmen in the inner circle of the ousted president who they see as corrupt.

They say new faces must be brought in to organise "real elections" in a country where the winner of presidential elections has always been easy to guess.

Any election under the current government would be seen as a mere resuscitation of the old regime protesters have been fighting against.

The election in numbers

  • 24,474,000 registered voters
  • Of these, 914,000 are registered to vote abroad
  • 61,014 polling stations across the country
  • 135 mobile polling stations catering for Algeria's nomads in the southern desert region

Source: Electoral commission

Many protesters say Mr Bensalah and Mr Bedoui cannot be trusted to secure a free and transparent election because they have benefitted from former President Bouteflika's rule.

But army chief Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, the county's de facto leader insisted that the election go ahead if Algeria is to avoid "chaos".

Despite clampdowns by the authorities, anti-election protests have taken hold across the country, making it difficult for candidates to engage with voters in the streets or in open-air rallies.

Skirmishes between campaigners and anti-election protesters have marred electoral campaigns in some cities.

Who is running for president?

Image copyright Getty Images/AFP
Image caption Ali Benflis, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Azzedine Mihoubi, Abdelkader Bengrina and Abdelaziz Belaïd

All five candidates in Algeria's presidential elections have served under former President Bouteflika or his FLN party:

  • Ali Benflis, 75, is a former Bouteflika loyalist-turned-rival. He served as the ousted leader's chief of staff and prime minister for three years, later running against him and losing in 2004 and 2014
  • Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, rose from a long career as a civil servant to become prime minister in 2017 but lasted just seven months because of a conflict with influential businessmen. He also served as housing minister and information minister
  • Azzedine Mihoubi, 60, is the interim leader of parliament's second-largest party, RND, which backed President Bouteflika in a ruling coalition. Previous posts included culture and information minister
  • Abdelkader Bengrina, 57, is a founder of the Islamist party, MSP. He served as tourism minister in a coalition of parties backing Mr Bouteflika before creating his own party, El-Bina
  • Abdelaziz Belaïd, 56, made his name in the FLN's youth organisation. He went on to become an MP before creating his own party, and ran for president in 2014

A candidate needs more than 50% of the vote to be declared the winner, otherwise there will be a second round.

Was there a TV debate?

Yes. For the first time in Algeria presidential candidates took part in a live TV debate, but many viewers were left unimpressed.

A panel of journalists representing the main public and private news organisations in the country took part in the show on 6 December.

It was run by the state broadcaster and also aired by commercial channels.

Experts and observers slammed the event for a lack of real debate and robust questioning of the candidates.

What do the candidates promise?

In their statements, all five presidential hopefuls have sought to distance themselves as much as they could from the ousted president and his inner circle.

They have also agreed "to meet the demands of the protesters" from their first day in office.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Not everyone has heeded the calls to boycott the polls but turnout was still expected very low

Mr Tebboune has promised to pursue taxpayer money "stolen and hidden abroad". Similarly, Mr Belaid says fighting corruption will be his priority if elected.

Mr Bengrina says too many of those in office are old men and he wants to see a "government of youth". Mr Benflis, meanwhile, wants to reduce the age requirement to run for public office.

Mr Mihoubi promises to improve Algeria's economy by focusing on agriculture and renewable energies.

Who is the front-runner?

Unlike Algeria's previous presidential elections there is no obvious front-runner this time around.

But experience and political support would put Mr Benflis, Mr Tebboune and Mr Mihoubi ahead of the rest.

Mr Tebboune has been dubbed "the chosen one" by social media users who see him as close to army chief Gen Salah. But the presidential hopeful was dealt a blow when his son appeared in court last week in connection with a high-profile corruption and cocaine-trafficking case.

Ms Benflis, meanwhile, has always struggled to distance himself from the Bouteflika regime in the eyes of the general public.

For years he was a close ally of the ousted leader and a promoter of his policies, despite a disagreement between the two.

Mr Mihoubi arguably has less baggage, and has not been linked to cases of corruption and financial scandals. Yet there is the burden of association with his RND party's disgraced former leader Ahmed Ouyahia, who has been jailed for corruption.

Find out more about Algeria:

Will the vote be undermined?

In massive demonstrations across Algeria, citizens have once again been calling this election a sham.

The authorities decided to go ahead with the vote despite massive popular resistance. But low participation would certainly damage the future president's legitimacy.

The vote was originally scheduled for June 2019 but was cancelled due to a lack of candidates. Army chief Gen Salah has repeatedly said the election must not be delayed a second time.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters held signs a week before the polls which read "this vote will never happen"

In the days ahead of the vote, reports have emerged of angry protesters destroying ballots boxes in some areas of the country.

Voting began on Saturday for the Algerian diaspora. Photos of polling stations opened in consulates and embassies abroad do not show a lot of enthusiasm for the election.

Turnout is likely to be a major challenge for the authorities as people had been more focused on whether the vote would even take place, rather than its possible outcome.

What has changed since Bouteflika left?

It was army chief Gen Salah who triggered the removal President Bouteflika, his former ally, when he called for his office to be vacated. The move was designed to appease nationwide protests against Mr Bouteflika seeking a fifth term.

Since Mr Bouteflika's ousting in April, there have been sweeping arrests of wealthy businessmen and high-profile officials close to the former president and his inner circle.

They include his brother Saïd Bouteflika who was jailed for 15 years for conspiring against the state and undermining the military, along with former intelligence chiefs Mohamed Mediene Toufik and Athmane Bachir Tartag, as well as leftist party leader Louisa Hanoun.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Said Bouteflika, pictured in 2012, was widely seen as the real power behind the presidency

Corruption and money laundering convictions have also landed two former prime ministers in jail - Ahmed Ouyahia was given a 15-year sentence, and Abdelmalek Sellal 12 years.

On the same changes, former cabinet ministers Youcef Yousfi and Mahdjoub Bedda have each been handed 10-year sentences, while businessmen Ali Haddad, Ahmed Mazouz, Hassan Arbaoui and Mohamed Bairi were each jailed for seven years.

An international arrest warrant has been issued against another cabinet minister, Abdesalem Bouchoureb, who is believed to have fled the country. He has been sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.

It is likely these men will appeal against their sentences.

While anti-government protesters have celebrated the prosecution of such figures - who they dub "the gang" - they remain determined to continue until their demands are met.

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