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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Thousands of protesters rallied on Thursday in Algeria's capital and other cities against presidential elections they believe will only perpetuate the ruling elite's hold on power.
They took to the streets amid a tight security presence, and were expected to be out until the preliminary results were announced at 11pm.
Previous protests have ended at 6pm and taken place only on Fridays and Tuesdays, but protesters chanted into the night on Wednesday that they would be out late on election day.
All 61,000 polling stations around the country opened as planned at 8am local time, but there were reports of protesters ransacking provincial polling stations.
A low turnout is expected as political and civil groups have urged Algerians to refrain from voting and refused to endorse the five candidates, all of them former officials under ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The five candidates cast their votes at polling stations around Algiers, and local media reported that Mr Bouteflika voted through a proxy.
The favourite in the presidential race is former Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi, with former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune close behind.
Protesters have described people who voting as traitors.
A video circulated online showed demonstrators raiding a polling station at a local school in the province of Bejaia, known for its minority Amazigh (or Berber) population.
Ballot boxes and votes were scattered across the playground.
The area is known for its strong support of the protests and many of its workers have been on strike for the past two days.
While overseas polling booths opened on Saturday, they have been scarcely attended, media reported, even though expats make up 20 per cent of the total voting population.
But the Independent National Committee for Elections said on Thursday afternoon that there had so far been a big turnout.
When asked about the video, the committee’s vice president, Abdelhafid Milat, said in any election you will find people trying to disturb proceedings but it was a small, isolated incident.
Mr Milat said that there have been no cases of vote rigging reported so far and the committee was continuing to monitor the situation.
Unverified videos on social media claimed to show ballot boxes being tampered with. There have been accusations of vote fraud in previous elections.
In the provinces of Naama, Tamanrasset and Adrar, where the government has mobile polling stations for nomads, voter turnout announced on Wednesday night was 34,000, 25,000 and 52,000.
Polls were scheduled to close at 7pm local time but the result may not be announced until Friday.
In preliminary figures provided by the president of the committee, Mohammed Charfi, some of the key provinces had a turnout as of Thursday afternoon of about 10 per cent, although Algiers was not included. There are 24.5 million registered voters.
The UAE had a turnout of 14 per cent of eligible Algerian voters, Tunisia 15 per cent and Lyon 11.3 per cent.
Large protests began in February and had within six weeks forced the resignation of Mr Bouteflika. Protesters are now demanding a complete change of the political system.
Despite some concessions aimed at showing the public that the government was willing and able to reform, such as the conviction of two former prime ministers on corruption charges this week, Algerians have continued to take to the streets.
They say the vote will not be transparent or fair, and that the candidates are part of the ruling elite that has controlled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962.
The five men running for president either supported Mr Bouteflika, 82, or were part of his government.
And this week, in the country’s first televised political debate, they failed to impress with their rigid answers in what was regarded as a missed opportunity.
But former prime minister and presidential candidate Ali Benflis said that if elected, his “top priority would be to engage in a dialogue with the opponents of the presidential election”.
“They have the right to have a point of view contrary to mine, but we must come together to reflect on political reforms,” Mr Benflis said.
Lt Gen Ahmed Salah, who compelled Mr Bouteflika to step down due to ill health and has since become the country’s most powerful player, pushed for the vote as the only way to end the crisis.
Who are the protesters and what do they want?
The Hirak movement, named after the Arabic word for mobilisation, grew out of the weekly protests that began in February by the announcement that Mr Bouteflika was to stand for a fifth term.
Had he been successful it would have breached constitutional limits to presidential mandates. He had been almost completely absent from public life after suffering a stroke in 2013.
Protesters seek political reform in a country where almost 50 per cent of the population is under 30, but is dominated by men over 50.
To a lesser level, the protests also demanded improvements to infrastructure, housing and the jobs market.
The Algerian demonstrations have been peaceful, avoiding the bloodshed seen recently in Iraq and skirmishes in Lebanon.
But scores have been arrested, including journalists and opposition figures.
Thousands of mostly protesters take to the streets every Friday after prayers, and on Tuesdays students take to the street.
While some praise the military for punitive actions against high-ranking officials, others say it is propping up the ruling elite.
On November 1, for the 65th anniversary of independence from France, millions took to the streets likening their struggle to the historic fight for freedom from their former colonial ruler.
Updated: December 13, 2019 02:02 AM
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