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Mohamed Nass - Cairo - A former Algerian prime minister who served under deposed leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president of the protest-wracked country after a vote marred by unrest and low turnout, results showed on Friday.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, took 58.15 percent of the vote, trouncing his four fellow contenders without the need for a second-round runoff, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi announced.
Like him, they all served under the two-decade rule of Bouteflika, 82, who resigned in the face of mass demonstrations in April.
The deeply unpopular election had been championed by the army as a way of restoring stability after almost 10 months of street protests.
But on polling day Thursday, protesters defied a heavy police presence to hold a mass rally in the heart of the capital Algiers and smaller demonstrations in provincial cities.
All five candidates — who included another former prime minister, Ali Benflis, 75, and an ex-minister, Azzedine Mihoubi — were widely rejected by protesters as “children of the regime”.
On Thursday, a record six in 10 Algerians abstained, Charfi said, the highest rate for a multi-party election since independence from France in 1962.
Tens of thousands rallied in central Algiers, where police with water cannon and helicopters tried to disperse protesters.
“The people want independence,” demonstrators chanted after breaking through a police cordon and filling the streets outside the Central Post Office, their rallying point through more than 40 weeks of protest.
AFP reporters saw a group storming a polling station in the capital, suspending voting there for about half an hour before police pushed them out again.
Late in the afternoon, an AFP reporter saw police using baton charges to disperse remaining protesters.
After dark, witnesses reported ongoing scuffles between police and protesters in the Belouizdad neighbourhood close to the city centre.
In the mountain region of Kabylie, home to much of the country’s Berber minority and historically opposed to the central government, protesters ransacked polling stations and clashed with police, residents said.
In the city of Bejaia, two polling stations were attacked. In Tizi Ouzou, security forces fired teargas to disperse a crowd who had surrounded a government building, triggering a standoff into the night in which several people were wounded.
‘Mired in crisis’
In central Algiers, young protesters slammed those casting their ballots as “traitors of the nation”.
That earned a sharp rebuke from one man in his 80s: “I fought for the right to vote, so I’m voting for my country.”
Other voters said they had turned out because after nearly a year of turmoil it was time for a return to stability.
“I am voting because I am afraid that the country will get mired in the crisis,” said Karim, a 28-year-old civil servant.
Sid Ali, a 48-year-old merchant in Algiers, said: “I support the Hirak (protest) movement but it needs to end. I lost 70 percent of my turnover and many traders are in my situation.”
‘No to the system’
Tebboune faces a difficult task 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.
He served in Bouteflika’s government from 1999 to 2002 as communications and then housing minister. He returned as housing minister from 2012 to 2017 when he was briefly appointed prime minister.
But he was sacked by Bouteflika after just three months for criticising some of the president’s inner circle, many of whom are now in jail on corruption charges.
Since the start of the campaign, Tebboune has sought to distance himself from his years of service under Bouteflika.
The “Hirak” street movement kicked off when Bouteflika announced in February that he would seek a fifth term in office.
Protesters have stayed on the streets ever since, demanding the total dismantling of the system that has ruled Algeria since independence.
The military high command, which long wielded power from the shadows, has been forced to take a more visible role and has pushed for the election as a way to withdraw behind the scenes again.
Demonstrators have vented their anger at army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has emerged as Algeria’s de facto strongman since Bouteflika stepped down.
A previous poll set for July was scrapped for lack of viable candidates and interim president Abdelkader Bensalah’s term technically ended five months ago.
Reporting by AFP
Image: Abdelmadjid Tebboune, seen in the photo voting in Thursday’s election, has sought to distance himself from his years of service under Bouteflika (AFP / RYAD KRAMDI )
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