Algeria election gets low turnout amid opposition boycott

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerians vote Saturday for a new parliament in an election with a majority of novice independent candidates running under new rules meant to satisfy demands of pro-democracy protesters and open the way to a “new Algeria.”

Tension surrounded the voting in the gas-rich North African nation. Activists and opposition parties boycotted the election, and voter turnout was low midway through the day.

Authorities have tightened the screws on the Hirak protest movement in recent weeks, with police stopping weekly marches and arresting dozens, the latest a Hirak figure and two journalists. The three prominent opposition figures, including journalist Khaled Drareni, a press freedom advocate, were freed early Saturday, three days after their arrests, the National Committee for the Liberation of the Detained said.

The early election is supposed to exemplify President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s “new Algeria,” with an emphasis on young candidates and those outside the political elite. A huge number of candidates — more than 20,000 — are running for the 407-seat legislature, once dominated by a two-party alliance considered unlikely to maintain its grip on parliament. Islamist parties all offered candidates.

It’s the first legislative election since former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced from office in 2019 after 20 years in power amid protests over corruption, joblessness and repression. Tebboune was elected eight months later, vowing to remake Africa’s largest country but with no sign of abandoning the preeminent though shadowy role of the army in governance.

“We are looking for change,” voter Mohammed Touait said at a polling station. “I am 84 years old, and today I woke up at 8 a.m. because I still have hope for change.”

The Constitutional Council announced Saturday that it would be 15 days before results of the balloting are known because of the number of candidates and the need to ensure against fraud, which marked past elections.

The participation rate among Algeria’s 24 million voters was 10% midway through the day, the electoral authority announced.

The president, at the start of the day, brushed off as irrelevant the number of people who vote.

“What is important is that those the people vote for have sufficient legitimacy,” Tebboune said after casting his ballot in Algiers.

The president also brushed off boycotts by the main opposition parties and Hirak supporters. Photos on social media showed images of some voting stations in the Kabylie region, east of Algiers, torn asunder with ballots strewn in streets. Kabylie, home of Berbers, is a traditional bastion of the opposition.

The president, at a voting station with his wife, said boycott calls shouldn’t prevent people from voting.

“These elections are another stage on the path to change and the construction of a new Algeria,” with sovereignty for the people, Tebboune said. “I respect the position of those who decided to boycott the elections, but they do not have the right to impose by force their viewpoint on others.”

“I call on Algerians to vote massively … to deny the forecasts and catastrophic scenarios of the enemies of Algeria,” Communications Minister Amar Belhimer said on Algerian television.

Women make up half of candidates for the first time, among efforts to make a fresh start. But women have been largely invisible from the campaign — their faces often blurred or concealed in campaign posters.

Candidates had just 20 days to campaign, and Algerian media said real debate on major issues of concern, like unemployment, was mostly absent.

“With such a slew of candidates, the calculation of power is simple: to elect a patchwork assembly, without a majority, which will allow the president to create his own parliamentary majority with which he will govern,” said political scientist Rachid Grime.

Many candidates couldn’t afford campaign posters. Independent candidates like Djamel Maafa, a former TV producer, used social networks to spread his message for lack of access to the funds and logistical structure of big parties.

Parties supporting the Hirak movement called for a boycott because they want a more fundamental political transition.

“Elections in Algeria have always proved that they are not the solution. The solution lies in democratic transition, it also lies in a dialogue around a table in order to solve the crisis,” said activist Sofiane Haddadji.

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