(AFP) – Voting began across Algeria on Thursday in the country’s first polls since the Arab Spring swept the region, with the ruling party, its Islamist allies and a boycott movement all hoping for victory.
The first of the more than 48,000 polling stations in Africa’s largest country opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), many under tight police surveillance.
State television showed live footage of voters pouring into a polling station as soon as the doors opened and jostling to be the first to cast their ballot.
The first results are due on Friday but a turnout estimate, the most anticipated figure in the election, is expected after polling stations close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).
Social discontent and deadly riots rattled Algeria in January 2011 when revolts were spreading across the region but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika snuffed out the protests with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.
The vote will see 44 parties — 21 of them newly created — battle for seats in an enlarged parliament of 462 lawmakers, in what Bouteflika has hailed as “the dawn of a new era”.
But ever deeper voter disaffection ahead of an election that failed to produce new faces could prompt a huge chunk of the 21-million electorate to shun polling stations.
“I am talking to the youth, who need to take over because my generation has served its time,” Bouteflika, 75, said on Tuesday.
His National Liberation Front (FLN), once the only party, has been steadily losing ground since pluralism was introduced in 1989. While it could yet win the most votes, it is expected to seek alliances to govern.
“I don’t think any party can approach a majority alone,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said recently.
The FLN, which has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly, currently is in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace, the main legal Islamist party.
The MSP hopes it can cash in on the so-called “Green wave” that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.
But Algeria is different in several ways.
One is that the Islamists are already in power: the MSP was part of a presidential alliance until February and still holds four government posts.
Another is that many Algerians believe the country has already had its own Arab Spring when the one-party system ended and Islamists won the first round of the ensuing 1991 election.
The army interrupted the vote, sparking a brutal decade-long civil war that left around 200,000 people dead and scars that are still raw.
Islamist parties have struggled to draw crowds during the campaign, as have other movements. The threat of an even lower turnout than the 35 percent recorded in 2007 looms large.
The campaign has focused on unemployment, which officially stands at 10 percent but is believed to be almost twice as high, on housing issues and on the soaring cost of living.
Algeria’s youth, which accounts for close to three quarters of the 37 million inhabitants, looks set to abstain en masse amid fears over the vote’s credibility and deep distrust of the political class.
Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and people cannot understand that a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182 billion does not do more to improve their lives.
The regime has tried to assuage fears of fraud by inviting some 500 foreign election observers — including from the European Union. But Algeria is four times the size of France, and few voters seem convinced.