Algerian vote touted as fair, but voters apathetic

Associated Press
Workers at a polling station count ballots at a polling station in the Bab el-Oued neighborhood, Algiers, Thursday, May 10, 2012. As parliamentary elections unfolded across Algeria on Thursday, voting was light for much of day in the capital, despite these contests being billed the freest in 20 years. (AP Photo/Paul Schemm).
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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Less than half of Algeria's registered voters turned out for parliamentary elections Thursday, for a contest billed by authorities as the freest in decades.

The government announced late Thursday around 42 percent of voters cast their ballots, which was still a substantial increase over an anemic turnout of just 36 percent in 2007 elections. Final results are expected Friday.

A coalition of Islamist parties is hoping to replicate the election successes of other Islamists across North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings of 2011, but they face stiff competition from two government parties with deeply entrenched networks.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spent the past several months urging Algerians to come out and vote, alternating promises of bold new reforms after elections with warnings that foreign powers might invade Algeria if there is a low turnout.

No party is expected to dominate the parliament, though for the government having close to a 50 percent turnout after years of voters ignoring the elections of the largely powerless body, represents a victory of sorts.

Turnout figures showed much higher rates of participation in rural areas and Algeria's desert south, compared to the cities. Government officials had originally predicted 45 percent turnout.

At one voting center in Algiers' working class neighborhood of Bab el-Oued, however, turnout at the close of the station was just between 25 and 30 percent.

Of those who did bother voting, 22 percent of the ballots were either void or defaced, with the Islamist "Green Alliance" coming in a close second.

Most Algerians, however, have shown little interest in the elections — if not outright scorn — citing a weak parliament and a history of rigged contests.

"These elections are nothing," said Marwan Bou Amama, 32, as he sat with friends on a hillside park overlooking Algiers' bay, not far from a voting station. "We here in Algeria, we live in a huge coffin. We are the living dead. At my age I should be married, I should have a house. It's a basic right."

Despite its hydrocarbon wealth, there is widespread dissatisfaction in the country and frequent demonstrations and riots over unemployment, poor utilities and lack of housing.

Unemployment is only officially at 10 percent, but rises to at least 20 percent among university graduates. About 70 percent of the population is under 35.

As polling stations opened, it was often elderly pensioners shuffling in to cast their ballot, many saying they had been voting since the country's independence in 1962, even though Algeria was a one party state until 1990.

"I am voting for my children, for their future, it's not for me," said Omar Blaeaki, an elderly retiree at a polling station at a stately old school in central Algiers. "This time around it is more sincere and honest than before, we are voting like they do in America or France."

In the bustling Bab el-Oued district, streets were filled with people shopping and children playing while their schools were being used as polling stations.

In contrast to the bright sunlight and noise outside, it was cool and quiet in the Abdel Kader High School, a grand old building near the sea where French existentialist writer Albert Camus was educated.

Dozens of classrooms had been converted into voting stations, but poll workers idled by their desks while only a handful of mostly elderly voters, wandered through the halls, looking for their polling place.

One of the few younger voters in evidence, Ali Ould Hammoudi, a university student, acknowledged that people in his neighborhood, a district nearby known as the Casbah, for the most part don't participate in elections.

"People in my area don't believe in the government and don't vote," said the bearded young man, whose finger was stained from the indelible ink used to mark voters. He said he and his friend had voted for the Islamist alliance.

"These elections will bring gradual change, over the next 10 years or so, including increased freedom of expression and women's participation, but it won't be a radical change."

While anecdotal evidence suggested turnout was low at least in the capital, state television repeatedly showed images of people packing into the voting stations.

The last truly fair elections in 1991 were dominated by a populist Islamist party known as the Islamic Salvation Front, but the military stepped in, canceled the voting and banned the party, prompting more than a decade of civil war that killed an estimated 200,000.

No party has since been able to mobilize Algeria's disaffected citizens to the same degree and many Algerians cite the civil war as a reason to avoid politics or angering the generals that dominate the political scene.

The historic party of the independence fight from colonial ruler France, the National Liberation Front, with its deep network across the country, has since won the most seats in subsequent elections.

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