ALGIERS (AFP) – Polls opened Thursday to elect a new parliament in Algeria, amid fears of a resurgence of Islamist extremism and a boycott call from the north African wing of Al-Qaeda.
Nearly 18.8 million Algerians are registered to cast ballots at more than 42,000 polling stations for the 389-seat National People’s Assembly, with 28 parties and 12,229 candidates in the running.
The results were not expected to significantly change the political landscape in Algeria, with allies of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 70, expected to retain a majority of seats.
But the voting is being closely monitored by the United States and Europe, which regard oil- and gas-rich Algeria as a strategic partner in the broad fight against Islamist extremism in the Middle East.
On the eve of the voting, a police officer was killed and five other people were injured Wednesday in Algeria’s third-biggest city Constantine, 48 hours after Al-Qaeda called on Algerians to boycott the polls en masse.
Two home-made bombs, hidden in plastic bags, went off early Wednesday in the working-class Daksi district of Constantine — one near a cafe, the other in the centre of a traffic roundabout, a police source said.
It was the most serious incident in an Algerian city since triple suicide bombings on April 11 in the capital Algiers, claimed by Al-Qaeda, took 30 lives and left 220 injured.
Interior Minister Yazid Zaerhouni condemned the blasts as “an act of sabotage against the Algerian democratic system”, and urged Algerians to go to the polls in big numbers “to show their attachment to democracy”.
“The best way to respond to such attacks is a strong turnout for the parliamentary elections,” he said on public radio.
Political analysts say that, with power in Algeria concentrated in the president, whose mandate ends in 2009, many Algerians have little interest in parliament and may therefore not bother to vote anyway.
Heightened security has been put in place throughout Algeria, north Africa’s biggest country, and the interior ministry has ordered trucks to stay off the roads, markets to be closed, and sporting and cultural events to be postponed to another day.
Thursday was declared a public holiday to encourage citizens to vote.
Since the April 11 bombings, security forces have redoubled their campaign against stubborn pockets of Islamist extremists in remote parts of oil- and gas-rich Algeria, diplomats say.
In a recording aired this week by Al-Jazeera television, Al-Qaeda called on Algerians to snub the polls, calling them “a farce that is not different from other farces seen before in Algeria.”
“If you take part in these elections, you will be sharing those apostates’ flagrant act,” said Abu Mussaab Abdul Wadud, leader of Al-Qaeda in North Africa, in the audio tape recording that was aired by Al-Jazeera on Monday.
“Express your opinion and renounce these elections. You only need to boycott or abstain from voting.”