|Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, sitting in a wheelchair, waves as he arrives to vote in the presidential elections in Algiers on Thursday. ( AP-Yonhap)|
ALGIERS (AFP) ― Ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika was poised to clinch a fourth presidential term despite chronic health problems and a sharp fall in turnout after Algerians voted Thursday in an election that saw some 70 people wounded in protests.
Although the results are to be officially announced on Friday afternoon by Interior Minister Tayib Belaiz, Bouteflika’s supporters took to the streets of the capital Algiers to celebrate after polls closed, letting off fireworks and sounding their car horns.
As they celebrated, Bouteflika’s main rival former premier Ali Benflis said he rejected the result and alleged “massive fraud” and “serious irregularities” across the country during polling day.
Even if Bouteflika’s success is confirmed, it was also clear that turnout had dropped sharply from the previous election in 2009, with figures showing 51.7 percent of Algerians had voted this time compared to an official, but disputed, figure of 74 percent in 2009.
In the capital, turnout was put at 37 percent.
The lowest turnout was recorded in the Kabylie, a restive, mostly Berber region east of Algiers, where around one in four people cast a vote.
Some 70 people were hurt in clashes between police and youths seeking to disrupt the vote when polls were open in the Kabylie as sporadic violence marred the election process.
In the village of Raffour, antiregime sentiment was palpable, with masked youths armed with slings and chanting hostile slogans confronting police who fired tear gas.
More than 260,000 police officers, some armed with Kalashnikovs, had been deployed when polls were open.
Voting ended at 1900 GMT across the vast North African country, but the 77-year-old president, who has been in power since 1999, was the firm favorite to triumph.
In his first public appearance in two years, a smiling Bouteflika arrived at a voting center in Algiers mid-morning Thursday in a wheelchair, waving but making no comment to reporters covering an election tainted by fraud warnings and boycott calls.
For Algeria’s independent newspapers, the election outcome is a foregone conclusion.
“It’s just a matter of the curtain coming down this evening on a bad taste political drama,” commented El Watan, saying the election lacked credibility.
Youth activists and opposition parties had urged Algerians to snub the election, as many question whether Bouteflika is fit to rule.
He has been seen only rarely on television in recent months, looking frail and barely audible, after suffering a mini-stroke last year which confined him to hospital for three months.
When he last appeared in public, in the run-up to a May 2012 parliamentary election, Bouteflika addressed Algeria‘s youth to declare: “My generation has served its time.”
His intention to seek re-election, announced in February, sparked derision and at times scathing criticism in the independent media.
However, Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians, especially for helping to end the devastating civil war of the 1990s, in which up to 200,000 people were killed.
“We are voting for peace, it’s all we want,” said Khadija, a widow in her 50s, at a polling station in a village in the Sidi Moussa district south of Algiers.
Her husband was killed in August 1997 along with nearly 100 others in Sidi Moussa in an attack blamed on the Armed Islamic Group, which staged a wave of massacres in its campaign against the government, at times wiping out entire villages.
But there is also anger and frustration among many Algerians for whom the likely prospect of another five-year term for an ageing president disabled by a stroke is unacceptable.
Youth protest group Barakat (Enough) was founded just two months ago specifically to challenge Bouteflika’s re-election bid.