|Date: Nov 19, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Campaigning starts in protest-hit Algeria|
|Agence France Presse|
ALGIERS: Campaigning for Algeria’s presidential election next month started Sunday in a country mired by protests demanding a sweeping overhaul of a decades-old political system. Five candidates will contest the Dec. 12 poll, but protesters charge the vote aims to cement in power the political elite linked to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who resigned in April under pressure from the street.
Billboards for campaign posters remained conspicuously bare Sunday, and some were covered in graffiti with insulting remarks or the names of activists detained in a crackdown on protesters.
“It is a symbol that [the vote] is rejected” by the people, former university professor Mohammad Hennad said, adding that he expected the electoral contest to be “difficult.”
The ailing Bouteflika, 82, was forced to quit after demonstrations erupted in February against his bid for a fifth term.
Since then Algeria has seen weekly Friday protests demanding deep reforms to a political system that has been in place since independence from France in 1962.
To protesters’ disappointment, all five candidates seeking to replace Bouteflika are known to have links to him.
They include former Prime Ministers Ali Benflis, 75, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, considered the two frontrunners in race.
The others include Azzedine Mihoubi, head of the Democratic National Rally party (RND), the main ally of Bouteflika’s party.
There are also Islamist ex-Tourism Minister Abdelkader Bengrina, whose party backed Bouteflika, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a member of a youth organization that also avidly supported the former Tunisian president.
Saturday night, the Defense Ministry called on Algerians “to take an active part alongside security forces ... to guarantee a successful” campaign and election.
“It is crucial for the future of the country,” it said in a statement.
Powerful army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah has led a push for presidential polls by the end of 2019, after an earlier date was missed because no other candidate came forward.
Meanwhile none of the candidates has organized an electoral meeting in Algiers or any of the country’s major cities and towns where protesters have thronged the streets Fridays to denounce the poll.
“If I were to be very generous, I’d say turnout will be less than 10 percent,” 80-year-old Mohammad Benhrahim said, speaking in the capital Algiers, a sly smile on his face.
The only voters he expected to go to the polling stations are “the families of the candidates, their friends and other cronies.”
“This election will be taught in history books,” said a teacher who identified himself as Ahmad, also flashing a smile.
“It will be an election with candidates but with no backing from the people.”
Algerian protesters attack 'garbage' presidential campaign
ALGIERS: Algeria's five presidential candidates Sunday launched their campaigns for the Dec. 12 election, but some opposition protesters who say the vote will not be fair have hung sacks of garbage in places designated for political posters.
The "Hirak" opposition movement, which emerged this year from weekly mass protests demanding the entrenched ruling hierarchy quits power, says it will not support any election until more senior officials stand aside.
However, the men on the ballot all have close links with the establishment, and though some of them pushed for reforms, many still see them as part of an entrenched, unchanging elite.
"The election is completely rejected. We won't accept it. This is why it will be rejected as garbage," said Smain, a 23-year-old protester who withheld his family name for fear of reprisals.
Protesters flooded onto the streets of Algerian cities and towns in late February as it became clear that the veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek another term in power.
Though leaderless, the protesters succeeded in ousting Bouteflika in April, after the army turned against him, and the election originally scheduled for July was postponed.
The army, under chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, then emerged as the most powerful body in Algerian politics as the authorities detained numerous Bouteflika allies on corruption charges, jailing some of them.
However, the army wants a return to normality and the end to a period of constitutional limbo in which an interim president holds office until a new election.
It and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party that won independence from France in 1962 and has ruled ever since, have said they will not back any candidate in the vote and promised it will be free from interference.
However, Hirak's opposition to the election has set it up as a showdown over turnout, with the army and ruling establishment hoping for enough participation to ensure the legitimacy of a new president who can then move to end the protests.
"Nobody knows how the silent majority will behave on the day of the vote," political analyst Farid Ferrahi said.
"If you are not with Hirak, it doesn't mean you are with the regime," he added.
A Western diplomat in Algiers said the five candidates were "the softest version of Bouteflika's system."
One candidate, Ali Benflis, was prime minister under Bouteflika but later set up an opposition party and unsuccessfully ran against him in the 2014 election.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune, another former prime minister, was sacked by Bouteflika after only 90 days after clashing with one of the then president's allies.
Azzeddine Mihoubi was a culture minister under Bouteflika for years. Abdelaziz Belaid was a senior member of the FLN. Abdelkader Bengrina, a moderate Islamist, was tourism minister.