Campaigning starts in protest-hit Algeria for presidential vote

Islamist ex-tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrina is one of five candidates running in Algeria's December 12 presidential election (AFP Photo/RYAD KRAMDI )

Algiers (AFP) - Campaigning for Algeria's presidential election next month started Sunday in a country mired by protests demanding a sweeping overhaul of a decades-old political system.

Five candidates will contest the December 12 poll, but protesters charge the vote aims to cement in power the political elite linked to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who resigned in April under pressure from the street.

Billboards for campaign posters remained conspicuously bare on Sunday, and some were covered in graffiti with insulting remarks or the names of activists detained in a crackdown on protesters.

"It is a symbol that (the vote) is rejected" by the people, said former university professor Mohamed Hennad, adding that he expected the electoral contest to be "difficult".

The ailing Bouteflika, 82, was forced to quit after demonstrations erupted in February against his bid for a fifth term.

Since then Algeria has seen weekly Friday protests demanding deep reforms to a political system that has been in place since independence from France in 1962.

To protesters' disappointment, all five candidates seeking to replace Bouteflika are known to have links to him.

They include former prime ministers Ali Benflis, 75, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, considered the two frontrunners in race.

The others include Azzedine Mihoubi, head of the Democratic National Rally party (RND), the main ally of Bouteflika's party.

There are also Islamist ex-tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrina, whose party backed Bouteflika, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a member of a youth organisation that also supported the former president.

On Saturday night, the defence ministry issued called on Algerians "to take an active part alongside security forces... to guarantee a successful" campaign and election.

"It is crucial for the future of the country," it said in a statement.

Powerful army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah has led a push for presidential polls by the end of 2019, after an earlier date was missed because no candidates came forward.

Meanwhile none of the candidates has organised an electoral meeting in Algiers or any of the country's major cities and towns where protesters have thronged the streets on Fridays to denounce the poll.

"If I were to be very generous, I'd say turnout will be less than 10 percent," said 80-year-old Mohamed Benhrahim, speaking in the capital Algiers, a sly smile on his face.

The only voters he expected to go to the polls are "the families of the candidates, their friends and other cronies".

"This election will be taught in history books," said a teacher who identified himself as Ahmed, also flashing a smile.

"It will be an election with candidates but with no backing from the people."