ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerians — without a leader since April — voted on Thursday 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.
Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Algiers, the capital, and scuffled and shut down voting stations in Bouira and Tizi Ouzou to the east.
Police used tear gas in some areas to push back protesters, and Algerian media reported numerous arrests.
All five presidential candidates have past ties to the Bouteflika regime, and protesters fear the elections will perpetuate a corruption-ridden system with military oversight that they are trying to bring to an end. Powerful army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah — who orchestrated the elections and set the date — promises the vote will chart the course to a new era in the gas-rich nation, a strategic partner of the West in countering extremist violence.
Voting stations closed at 7 p.m., 11 hours after opening. The turnout rate — a critical way to measure the popular legitimacy of the elections — stood at 33% two hours before voting ended, according to Mohamed Charfi, head of the newly created National Independent Electoral Authority.
Results were expected Friday.
Charfi conceded that “in certain regions” voting was “interrupted,” but did not elaborate. The official APS news agency quoted a local voting official in the city of Tizi Ouzou, in the Berber region east of Algiers, as saying operations there were suspended for “security reasons.” Kabyle is known as an anti-government bastion.
The five candidates, including former prime ministers, Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, endured insults and protests during the 22-day campaign.
Protesters took to the streets in several cities on the eve of the vote, and continued their action on Thursday, with thousands filling a main avenue in Algiers, the capital.
“No to elections of shame” and “generals in the garbage” were among the chants.
“I would suggest we take these chants into consideration,” said Algiers protester Karima Moez. “The people are aware now, and they are crying out from the bottom of their hearts.”
Video from Jijel, in Kabyle, showed people voting “as expected,” placing their votes in a garbage can.
Despite the peaceful weekly marches across the nation since February, confrontations with security forces were reported Wednesday night in Bouira, east of the capital, and Algerian media reported skirmishes in front of at least one voting center there.
The disgraced and ailing Bouteflika, who held office for 20 years, cast a ballot via a brother, Nasser, who said that “he remains a citizen with all his rights.”
There was no firm indication which of the five had the upper hand ahead of the vote. Opinion polls for elections are not permitted.
“Today is not just the day of a presidential election, but a day for strengthening the pillars of the republic,” said candidate Azzedine Mihoubi, 60, a writer, poet and former culture minister who has recently been touted by the Algerian media as a favorite. “This is a day of victory for Algeria,” he told reporters.
Tebboune, 74, who headed numerous ministries and was briefly prime minister in 2017 before being fired, was until recently seen as the favorite due to his reportedly close ties to Gaid Salah. Mihoubi has deep ties to the fallen Bouteflika regime. He took over leadership of the National Democratic Rally party, which governed in alliance with the FLN, the sole party for nearly three decades, until 1989, and now is in tatters.
Benflis, 75, is making his third attempt at the presidency. A lawyer and former justice minister, he was Bouteflika’s top aide andthen prime minister from 2000-2003 before falling out when he ran against him in 2004. He started his own party.
The other candidates are Abdelaziz Belaid, 56, a former figure in the FLN who started his own party, and Abdelkader Bengrina, 57, a one-time tourism minister and former member of the moderate Islamist party, Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP). He then started his own Islamist party el Bina, which like the MSP, backed Bouteflika.
“We have come out to vote and make our choice known so we can figure out where we’re headed,” said voter Abdel Nasr at an Algiers polling station.
Gaid Salah, who has emerged as the authority figure in the political vacuum, has maintained that the voting is the shortest and surest way to raise Algeria out of its paralyzing political crisis and give birth to a new era. He was the force behind an anti-corruption campaign that has seen top figures jailed and convicted, including Said Bouteflika, the president’s younger brother and chief counselor, sentenced to 15 years in prison in September for “plotting against the state.”
Gaid Salah refers to Bouteflika’s entourage as “the gang,” as do pro-democracy protesters who include Gaid Salah among them.
AP journalist Ganley reported from Paris. Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers contributed.