ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Algerians are looking largely with frustration or indifference toward a presidential election Thursday set to hand Abdelaziz Bouteflika another five years at the helm of this U.S. ally with vast gas reserves, soaring youth unemployment and an active al-Qaida offshoot.
The left-wing opposition, many Islamist leaders, and the chief of al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa have called for a boycott of the vote and predicted fraud. Bouteflika, who was first elected with the army’s backing in 1999 and again in 2004, enjoys support of all key government players. He faces five low-profile opponents, but none has successfully challenged Bouteflika’s message of continuity and reconciliation after an insurgency that ravaged this North African country in the 1990s.
The president, 72, had the constitution changed last year so he could run again. There is so little suspense about the outcome that voter turnout is viewed as the key test of the election.
Bouteflika’s campaign has told The Associated Press the president wants 60 percent turnout, and has predicted he should win at least 75 percent of votes cast.
Critics say voters are being threatened that they will be denied government services if they can’t prove they voted.
Opponents also say there is little control over itinerant voting bureaus for nomads in the southern Sahara Desert and for bureaus in military barracks or other reclusive government-controlled zones. No U.N. observers will monitor the voting.
Elhaj Boualem, who sells fruits in the Casbah, the often-restive historic center of the capital, Algiers, said he lost faith in voting since 1992, when authorities canceled legislative elections that Islamists were poised to win. That sparked a cycle of bloodshed that killed up to an estimated 200,000 people over the ensuing decade. “I’ll just cast a blank ballot,” said Boualem. He said he was only voting because local authorities told him his housing application would be rejected if he couldn’t produce a stamped voter’s card.
“We’re all still living at my mother’s,” said the 58-year-old father of three. The president’s program hinges on continuity.
“It is indispensable for me to pursue and consolidate the reconstruction work of the past 10 years,” Bouteflika told a crowd Monday at his closing campaign rally.
Though wary of his prolonged stay at the helm of the country, most people credit Bouteflika with bringing relative calm after 10 years of insurgency, and for building new infrastructure.
His National Reconciliation charter, passed by referendum in 2005, has offered to pardon insurgents in exchange for peace. During his campaign, he repeatedly hinted that he could offer a new, blanket amnesty if the last militants from al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa renounce their near-daily ambushes or bombings and turn themselves in.
Bouteflika’s tenure has also seen a large investments in roads, dams, and housing, part of a $200 billion program funded through Algeria’s large oil and natural gas exports. “I’ll vote for him because of what he’s done,” said Khadidja Warriq, 62, shopping in Algiers. “But he’d better get potatoes under 100 dinars,” or $1 per kilogram, she said, echoing widespread anxiety among Algerians at the soaring cost of living. Many Algerians, however, have voiced indifference to the drab, three-week campaign that has seen posters of Bouteflika plastered on nearly every street of the country, but offered no public debate and precious few counter-programs by his opponents.
With most leading Islamists banned from politics in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, candidates running against Bouteflika include one woman from a small, far-left party, two nationalists, and two relatively moderate Islamist-leaning politicians.
Louisa Hanoune, who heads the Trotskyist Workers’ Party, promised voters she’d “give them back their say.” Moussa Touati, who leads the Algerian National Front, pledged to “let the youth build their country.”
The other three candidates, none of whom received much media coverage or made large public appearances, say they don’t stand a chance because the Algerian state has turned into an electoral machine for Bouteflika.
The Interior Ministry sought to deflect any fraud concerns by issuing a statement this week called “Guarantees of transparency and credibility for the electoral operations.”
Faycal Metaoui, an editorialist at the El Watan newspaper, which faces some 30 lawsuits in part because it opposed changing the constitution to allow the president to run for a third term, is convinced voter turnout will be minimal because Bouteflika is too old and too secluded to appeal to ordinary Algerians anymore.
“The President is out of touch with society,” especially the young, said Metaoui. Nearly 70 percent of the population is under 30, and vast numbers are unemployed or surviving on odd jobs. Despair and frustration is growing within this generation, and more are tempted by illegal emigration.
“I’d never vote,” said Ayman Brahimi, 25, a street vendor in the Casbah who wore the staple outfit of fake western sports brands.
“Voting, for me, is to leave the country as soon as I can,” he said.