Algerians started voting in the first legislative elections since longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to resign two years ago, but the opposition Hirak movement called for a boycott after Thursday’s arrest of seven of its leaders.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. (07:00 GMT) and are expected to close at 7:00 p.m.
About 24 million Algerians are eligible to vote to elect 407 members of the National People’s Assembly for a five-year term.
The Hirak movement has spearheaded anti-government protests calling for fundamental changes in the country’s political system, which has been led by Bouteflika for 20 years.
Pro-government parties have urged Algerians to take an active part in what they call a “crucial vote for the stability of the country”, while opponents denounce a “sham” election.
Seven personalities of the protest movement, including Karim Tabbou, a leading opposition figure, were arrested on Thursday while on Friday the police were deployed massively in the capital, Algiers, blocking any attempt by the Hirak movement to organize demonstrations anti-government.
The early elections are meant to exemplify President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s “new Algeria”, with an emphasis on young candidates and those who are not part of the political elite.
Those who vote in Africa’s largest nation must choose from more than 13,000 candidates, more than half of whom are listed as “independent.”
The head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Saïd Salhi, denounced the repression which preceded the vote.
“The repressive atmosphere and the restrictions on human rights and freedoms mean that these elections have no democratic value,” said Salhi.
Farida Hamidi, a Hirak activist in Paris, said the election meant little to young Algerians dreaming of change.
“We reject everything: the president, the parliament, the constitution, everything that is done by this military junta which has ruled Algeria since 1962 – we want something else,” she declared.
The Hirak has called for a boycott of all national polls since he mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in 2019 to force long-time President Bouteflika to resign, after launching a candidacy for a fifth term.
The movement returned to the streets in February after a hiatus of almost a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, having also survived a campaign of arrests, a presidential election and a constitutional referendum aimed in part at l ‘bury.
But the government stepped up its crackdown on Hirak last month, blocking protests and detaining hundreds of activists who defied new restrictions on public gatherings.
Freelance journalist Khaled Drareni and the director of a pro-reform radio station, Ihsane El Kadi, were also among the seven people arrested on Thursday.
“These arrests mark a frightening escalation in the Algerian authorities’ crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and association,” Amnesty International said in a statement, citing more than 200 people detained in connection with the Hirak movement .
“Instead of bringing together journalists and political opponents in an attempt to crush dissent and intimidate members of the Hirak protest movement, the Algerian authorities should focus on fulfilling their human rights obligations.
Old guard, economic woes
President Tebboune claims to have responded to the main demands of the Hirak “in record time”, but asserts that those who continue to demonstrate are “counter-revolutionaries” in the pay of “foreign parties”.
The powerful chief of staff of the armed forces, Saïd Chengriha, warned against any “action aimed at disrupting” the ballot.
The protest movement claims that Tebboune’s past role as prime minister under Bouteflika confirms his account that the old guard, in power since Algeria’s independence in 1962 from France, maintains a firm grip on power .
Established parties linked to Bouteflika’s regime – the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (RND) – are seen as likely to lose seats, being discredited and blamed for the political and economic crisis in Algeria.
Islamist parties are also looking to use the Hirak boycott to increase their representation – but with their vote split between five rival parties, they could struggle to make any real gains.
“With such a slew of candidates, the calculation of power is simple: elect a patchwork assembly, without a majority, which will allow the president to create his own parliamentary majority with which he will govern,” said political scientist Rachid Grime.
Africa’s fourth-largest economy is heavily dependent on oil revenues and struggles with unemployment of over 12%, according to the World Bank.
It has also been hit hard by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 3,500 lives in the country, according to the Ministry of Health.
“The elections in Algeria have always proved that they are not the solution. The solution lies in the democratic transition, it also lies in a dialogue around a table in order to resolve the crisis, ”said activist Sofiane Haddadji.