ALGIERS – Algerians — without a leader since April — voted on Thursday for a new president in an election marked by protests, scattered violence and a boycott by the massive pro-democracy movement that ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Algiers, the capital, and scuffles shut some 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 candidates have past ties to the 20-year Bouteflika regime, and protesters fear the elections will perpetuate a corruption-ridden system with military oversight that they are trying to end. Powerful army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah — who orchestrated the elections and set the date — promised the vote would usher in a new era in the gas-rich North African nation, a strategic ally of the West in countering militancy.
Turnout was 41 percent, according to the head of the National Independent Electoral Authority, which was recently created as an attempt at transparency in a nation where leaders — generals until the arrival of Bouteflika — were considered chosen in advance. That compares to nearly 52 percent turnout in 2014, Bouteflika's final mandate.
The head of the authority, Mohamed Charfi, called the turnout “satisfactory.” The turnout is a critical measure of the legitimacy of the election, and a new president.
Official results are to be announced Friday. Yet some candidates cried victory Thursday night, notably Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who served briefly as prime minister in 2017 until being fired. His campaign director, Mohamed Laagab, told En Nahar private TV station and TSA online news agency that Tebboune was the clear winner with 64 percent of the vote.
He said his information was based on campaign reports from Algeria's 48 wilayas, or regions. There was no official response to the claim.
No election polling is allowed in Algeria, but Tebboune, 74, had been considered until recently the favorite because of his reportedly close ties to Gaid Salah, the army chief. Local media recently began touting another candidate as the favorite, Azzedine Mihoubi, a writer and former communications and culture minister.
Peaceful nationwide protests have been held weekly since February. But scattered violence erupted in a sign of the divisiveness of the election.
Charfi, of the electoral authority, 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.”
Video from Jijel, in Kabyle, showed people voting “as expected,” placing their votes in a garbage can. Kabyle is known as an anti-government bastion.
The five candidates, including former prime ministers, Ali Benflis and Tebboune, endured insults and protests during the 22-day campaign. Tebboune canceled his final rally in Algiers.
Protesters took to the streets on Thursday, with thousands filling a main avenue in Algiers, chanting “No to elections of shame” and “generals in the garbage.”
“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.”
Confrontations with security forces were reported Wednesday night in Bouira, and Algerian media reported skirmishes in front of at least one voting center there.
The disgraced and ailing Bouteflika cast a ballot via a brother, Nasser, who said “he remains a citizen with all his rights.” Bouteflika, 81, has reportedly retired to his private home in the hills of Algiers. He has used a wheelchair since a 2013 stroke and was rarely seen in public in the final years of his presidency.
“Today is not just the day of a presidential election, but a day for strengthening the pillars of the republic,” said candidate Mihoubi during the voting. “This is a day of victory for Algeria."
Mihoubi has deep ties to the 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. Mihoubi's candidacy was backed by the RND.
Benflis, 75, was making his third attempt at the presidency. A lawyer and former justice minister, he was Bouteflika's top aide and then prime minister from 2000-2003 before falling out when he ran against him in 2004. He started his own party.
The other candidates were 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 . 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.
Ganley reported from Paris. Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers contributed to this report.