Thursday, April 09, 2009

Algeria Heads to the Polls

Thursday, April 09, 2009
13:11 Mecca time, 10:11 GMT

Algeria heads to the polls

Algerians said the campaign offered no public debate and few counter-programmes by opponents

Voting is under way in Algeria in presidential elections predicted to hand another five-year term to incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Traditional opposition groups are boycotting Thursday's poll - calling it a charade.

Voter turnout is expected to be low and is being seen as a referendum on Bouteflika's policies.

Elected in 1999 and 2004, Bouteflika had the constitution changed in November last year to allow him to run for a third term.

Bouteflika faces five low-profile opponents, including one woman and two nationalists. Most Islamist leaders are banned from politics.

Opposition challenge lacking

In his campaigning, Bouteflika said: "I continue to regard the restoration of civil peace as a national priority, as long as hotbeds of tension and pockets of subversion survive."

Algeria suffered a protracted civil war in which at least 150,000 people died after elections won by an Islamist party were annulled.

Among the issues within the country today are rising youth unemployment and sporadic attacks, commonly claimed by an al-Qaeda-linked group.

To date, Algeria has invested in roads, dams, and housing, as part of a $200bn-programme funded through the country's oil and natural gas exports. But other sectors have declined due to under-investment.

Bouteflika is promising a $150bn development plan to create three million jobs and build one million homes over the next five years.

Bouteflika has also hinted that he could offer an amnesty to al-Qaeda fighters if they renounce their campaign and turn themselves in.

Boycott calls

However, many voters have criticised the campaigning, and left-leaning and Islamist leaders have called for a boycott.

Many Algerians say they are indifferent to the campaign which has offered no public debate and few counter-policies.

Bouteflika's rivals, who have little in the way of campaign funds, are calling on Algerians to vote against corruption, cronyism, social injustice and the unfair division of wealth.

Elhaj Boualem, who sells fruit in the centre of the capital, Algiers, said he lost faith in voting after 1992 when the authorities cancelled legislative elections.

"I'll just cast a blank ballot,'' he said.

Boualem also said that the local authorities had told him that his housing application would be rejected if he could not produce a stamped voter's card.

The country's interior minister said observers from the African Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League would be present.

The UN has also sent a review mission that will report back to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general.

The results of the elections are due on Friday.

Source: agencies

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