Algeria's unwanted presidential election

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Anti-regime protesters marched through central Algiers on December 6, protesting against the upcoming presidential election

Anti-regime protesters marched through central Algiers on December 6, protesting against the upcoming presidential election (AFP Photo/RYAD KRAMDI )

Algiers (AFP) - Algerians are being asked to vote Thursday in a presidential election bitterly opposed by the country's nine-month-old protest movement, which sees it as a regime ploy to cling to power.

While no opinion polls have been published, observers expect high levels of abstention, in keeping with previous elections in a political system seen by voters as rigid and unaccountable.

Historian and Maghreb specialist Karima Direche predicts that low turnout will make the election "a total fiasco".

Overseas polling booths for expat Algerians opened Saturday, but have been almost empty -- the few who do cast their ballots often facing a barrage of insults from protesters.

Direche, of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said that despite being traditionally conservative and close to the regime, today the diaspora "is mobilised against the election".

Ageing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's February announcement that he would seek a fifth term in office sparked an unprecedented mass protest movement that by April forced him to resign.

Protesters continued with their weekly rallies, demanding the total dismantling of the military-dominated system that has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962.

The military high command, which has long wielded power from behind the scenes, was forced to take a front-line role in government -- but rejected the demands of protesters and civil society for sweeping reforms.

It has paid little attention to demands to replace the constitution that served to legitimise Bouteflika's grip on power.

Instead, the army has pushed for an election to pick a replacement for Bouteflika, saying it is the only route to resolving the political crisis.

A previous poll set for July 4 was abandoned for lack of viable candidates and interim president Abdelkader Bensalah's term technically ended five months ago.

A caretaker government, appointed by Bouteflika two days before he quit, remains in post, led by his longtime ally Noureddine Bedoui.

- 'War of attrition' -

On the street, Algerians staged vast rallies for their last weekly Friday protest ahead of the vote, once again calling on army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah to scrap the poll.

They also sought to disprove Gaid Salah's assertions that there was "popular momentum" in support of the election.

The five candidates in the poll have run low-key campaigns.

All are considered "children of the system", having either supported Bouteflika or participated in his government -- two as prime ministers and one as a minister.

Protesters accuse them of protecting the regime by standing for election.

They have struggled to attract audiences at their campaign events, held under heavy police protection, as well as being loudly heckled and having their posters graffitied.

After two years of rigged elections, few in Algeria are convinced by assurances from an administration still controlled by Bouteflika loyalists that the poll will be fair and transparent.

That is despite a minor change to the electoral law transferring oversight from the interior ministry to an "independent" electoral authority.

Whoever becomes Algeria's next president is "already discredited", according to Direche.

"He will not be recognised by the public and will have a real problem of electoral legitimacy," she said, adding that the protest movement would likely continue its "war of attrition" long after the poll.

The incoming head of state will be forced to deal with increasingly organised opposition forces that have emerged from the movement, she said.

"The army wants to ensure continuity of power, as it existed under Bouteflika, but it is now impossible."