ALGIERS: Algeria held a tense presidential election on Thursday meant to bring stability after a year of turmoil, but voting was marred as protesters stormed polling stations and thousands rallied in the capital.
The unpopular vote comes almost 10 months after a people power movement ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, after two decades in office, and as demonstrators keep pushing for an end to the military-backed political system.
Tens of thousands rallied in central Algiers, defying a heavy police presence backed by water cannons and helicopters, and despite the arrests of at least 10 activists meant to prevent a repeat of the previous day’s anti-election rallies.
“The people want independence,” they chanted after breaking through a police cordon and filling the streets outside the Central Post Office, their symbolic meeting place in more than 40 weeks of rallies.
A group stormed a polling station in the capital, suspending voting there for about half an hour, before police pushed them out again, AFP reporters witnessed.
Unrest also erupted in the northern mountain region of Kabylie, home to much of the country’s Berber minority, where groups “ransacked the ballot boxes and destroyed part of the electoral lists” in Bejaia, a resident said.
Video footage shared on social media, purportedly from a polling station there, showed dozens of people tossing ballot papers into the air and stamping on them, while clips from other cities showed large demonstrations.
Crowds also surrounded a government building in Tizi Ouzou, where security forces fired teargas to repel them.
The ballot features five candidates, all of them widely rejected as “children of the regime” by the protesters.
Among them are two of the ousted leader’s former prime ministers — Abdelmajid Tebboune, 74, and Ali Benflis, 75 — and a former minister, Azzedine Mihoubi.
While only a trickle of voters cast their ballots in some districts, national television showed longer queues elsewhere, leading some online commentators to wonder “how much they have been paid.”
Voter turnout stood at just over 20 percent at 1400 GMT, seven hours after polls opened, said electoral committee chief Mohamed Charfi.
That was below the 23 percent recorded at the same time of day in elections five years ago, when total participation reached 50.7 percent.
Whoever wins will struggle to be accepted by the electorate in the north African country, where many citizens see the government as inept, corrupt and unable to manage the flagging economy.
“None of the five candidates can hope to be considered legitimate” in the eyes of the protesters, said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.