Algeria: record low turnout in presidential election held amid calls for boycott

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Thousands of Algerians took to the streets on Thursday to protest a presidential election they see as illegitimate, clashing with police and urging the country to boycott a vote that will now go to a second round.

Early results on Thursday night showed that there would be a second round between the top two candidates, former prime minister Majid Tebboun with 36 per cent and Abdelkader Bengrina with 29.5 per cent, as neither received the majority needed to win outright.

It was not yet clear when the next vote will run.

Election officials said the voter turnout in the country was a little over 41 per cent, and close to 9 per cent among Algerians voting overseas, the lowest participation rate in a multi-party contest in Algeria's history.

Some of those who voted said they had chosen to spoil their ballot rather than snub the election.

Polling station workers empty a ballot box in a polling station in Algiers. Algerians — without a leader since April — voted for a new president or boycotted and held street protests against the elections decried by a massive pro-democracy movement that forced former leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. AP

An election official holds a ballot paper showing presidential candidate Azzedine Mihoubi during vote counting at a polling station in Algiers, Algeria. EPA

Algerians chant slogans during a protest rally in Algiers, Algeria. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the capital Algiers calling for a mass boycott of the country's presidential elections, which is taking place on the day, and to voice against the five candidates running to replace ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being closely linked to the former regime. EPA

Algerians chant slogans during a protest rally in Algiers, Algeria. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the capital Algiers calling for a mass boycott of the country's presidential elections, which is taking place on the day, and to voice against the five candidates running to replace ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being closely linked to the former regime. EPA

Algerians chant slogans during a protest rally in Algiers, Algeria. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the capital Algiers calling for a mass boycott of the country's presidential elections, which is taking place on the day, and to voice against the five candidates running to replace ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being closely linked to the former regime. EPA

Algerians chant slogans during a protest rally in Algiers, Algeria. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the capital Algiers calling for a mass boycott of the country's presidential elections, which is taking place on the day, and to voice against the five candidates running to replace ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being closely linked to the former regime. EPA

Riot police officers gather in Algiers after the presidential elections. Algerians — without a leader since April — voted for a new president or boycotted and held street protests against the elections decried by a massive pro-democracy movement that forced former leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. AP

Algerian security forces rush towards demonstrators during an anti-government demonstration on, in the capital Algiers on the day of the presidential election. About 10,000 protesters rallied in Algeria's capital against presidential elections they believe aim to perpetuate the regime of deposed leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, AFP reporters witnessed. AFP

This AFPTV screen grab from a video shows Algerian security forces detaining protesters during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers on the day of the presidential election. About 10,000 protesters rallied in Algeria's capital against presidential elections they believe aim to perpetuate the regime of deposed leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, AFP reporters witnessed. The crowd outnumbered police who had intervened with force and made several arrests in a bid to prevent a mass demonstration of the almost 10-month old "Hirak" protest movement. AFP

Riot police are deployed during a protest to reject the presidential election in Algiers, Algeria. Reuters

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While overseas polling booths opened on Saturday, they were scarcely attended, according to media reports, with 14 per cent of registered voters in the UAE turning out. Expats make up about 20 per cent of Algeria’s voting population.

Those who cast their votes on Thursday were labelled traitors by demonstrators, who also referred to the candidates as “five wolves”.

At a march in central Algiers, large groups of mostly young men chanted slogans like “democracy not military” and “generals in the rubbish, then Algeria gets its independence” under the gaze of a circling police helicopter.

Protesters say they reject what they see as a sham vote that is aimed at protecting the interests of the political establishment, and have demanded complete reform of the system.

“I don’t believe in the vote, I don’t believe in the five candidates. I want to vote and have an election, but not with the government of the ‘gang’,” said Dr Yusif, who has been part of the movement since the start and abstained from voting.

“They say that Algeria is a democracy, but it’s just ink on paper – it’s not true. It’s still a dictatorship ... we will not stop protesting until the country is liberated.”

The large protests, known as the Hirak movement after the Arabic word for mobilisation, began in February after long-time leader President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was to stand for fifth term, in contravention of the constitution. Within six weeks he had been forced to resign.

However, the unrest has continued and the five men running for president, who protesters refer to as the gang, either supported Mr Bouteflika or participated in his government.

Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, who triggered the legislature that forced the 82-year-old Mr Bouteflika to step down due to ill health and has since become the country’s most powerful political player, pushed for the vote as the only way to end the crisis. The conviction of two former prime ministers on corruption charges earlier this week was seen as an attempt to show the public that the government was willing and able to reform.

Demonstrators carry banners and gesture during a protest rejecting the presidential election in Algiers, Algeria. REUTERS

A demonstrator with flag gestures near police officers standing guard during a protest against the country's ruling elite and rejecting the presidential election in Algiers, Algeria. REUTERS

Algerian students are circled by a group a police officers during a protest in Algiers. AP Photo

Algerian students march, one with a poster reading "Freedom", right, during a protest in Algiers. AP Photo

A group of police officers are pictured next a poster reading "No to the Dec.12 2019 elections" during a protest in Algiers. AP Photo

Demonstrators gesture near police officers standing guard during a protest against the country's ruling elite and calling to reject the upcoming presidential election in Algiers. REUTERS

Algerians observe protesters during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers. AFP

An Algerian student holds a poster reading "No to the vote on Dec.12" during a protest in Algiers. AP Photo

Algerian protesters are pictured during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers ahead of the presidential vote scheduled for December 12. AFP

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Although the protests have remained deliberately peaceful over the last nine months, Red Crescent volunteers said they had started to see injuries caused by clashes with police since Wednesday.

The National witnessed a young man be stretchered into an ambulance after sustaining a head wound he claimed was caused by a police baton, causing sight problems. Protesters also said they had seen police use unnecessary force on people that had resulted in injury.

While political and civil organisations urged people to refrain from voting, some chose to sabotage polling stations. A video circulated online appeared to show protesters raid an election official at a local school in the province of Bejaia, known for its Amazigh (or Berber) population, seizing ballot boxes and scattering votes across the playground.

Former Minister of Culture Azeddine Mihoubi had been seen as the favourite, with Mr Tebboun close behind.

Ali Benflis, another former prime minister and presidential candidate, promised that if elected he would engage with opposers to the vote during Algeria’s first political debate earlier in the week.

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 11:24 AM

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