Low turnout reported in Algeria as Bouteflika seeks fourth term
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Low turnout was reported as polls closed Thursday evening in a vote that is widely expected to secure a fourth term for Algeria’s ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, despite his frail health and rare public appearances.
Preliminary results broadcast on state media indicate that Bouteflika is in the lead.
FRANCE 24's correspondent in Algiers, Catherine Norris Trent, says the Bouteflika camp has already been setting off celebratory fireworks.
As of 5pm, turnout was estimated at 37 percent, with Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz insisting the election was taking place "in good conditions in the 50,000 voting centres" across the country. The opposition says those figures have been inflated.
Our correspondent said very few people were at polling stations in the capital Algiers. Catherine Norris Trent added that those who did vote were mainly elderly people. She said that the young people she spoke to told her they were staying away because there was “no hope for them”.
The sight of Bouteflika casting his ballot from a wheelchair is likely to infuriate his critics, who say the 77-year-old leader is unfit to run for a fourth term because of his health problems.
Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a stroke last year. Unable to campaign, he delegated that task to a team of loyalists who claim that the ageing leader is well enough to govern.
More than 260,000 police and security officers were on hand throughout the day to ensure that the vote took place in peaceful conditions.
But shortly after polling stations opened, clashes broke out in the north between security forces and youths seeking to disrupt the ballot by ransacking voting stations in three localities in the Kabylie region. In all, roughly 70 people were wounded, including 28 policemen.
According to local sources, voting was temporarily suspended in the affected stations.
The oil and gas-rich North African nation has been rocked by small riots and protests over housing and food costs, but the opposition remains divided and unable to challenge the dominance of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). The state has spent heavily on subsidies and social programmes to ward off Arab Spring-style protests and build support among voters afraid of political changes.
'Stability' above all
After 15 years in power, Bouteflika is the firm favourite and Algerian newspapers said the vote outcome was a foregone conclusion.
"Bouteflika is seen by many as a man who brought peace and stability to Algeria after a decade-long and very deadly civil war in the 1990s … People are very nervous about what would happen after Bouteflika, what would happen if there were political change," reports FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Algiers.
Of the five candidates running against Bouteflika, his former prime minister, Ali Benflis, has mounted the most vigorous campaign. He has warned that he has placed observers in each of the 60,000 polling stations across the country and he and his supporters will not be silent if there is fraud.
"Benflis managed to get support from young people, even in the south of Algeria, in the Kabyle regions, and some Islamist groups, although other opposition parties are boycotting the vote," says Norris Trent.
After casting his vote on Thursday afternoon, Benflis again warned of a high risk of fraud in the elections.
The results are expected at the earliest on Friday.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)