Algerian protesters demand election must be cancelled - GulfToday

Algerian protesters demand election must be cancelled


Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest calling to reject presidential election in Algiers on Wednesday. Reuters

A big crowd of protesters marched through central Algiers on Wednesday to demand that a presidential election planned for Thursday be cancelled, chanting that they would not vote in a poll they regard as a charade.

Thousands of people crowded through the capital to demand that the vote be cancelled until the entire ruling elite step down and the military quit politics.

They chanted “No election tomorrow” and held up banners reading “You have destroyed the country.”

Algeria’s political stalemate between the enormous protest movement and a state increasingly dominated by the military has put at stake the political future of Africa’s largest country, a nation of 40 million people and a major gas supplier to Europe.

All five of the state-approved candidates running on Thursday are former senior officials linked to the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika whom the army forced aside in April in response to the protests.

“Algerians want radical change. They are fed up,” said student Ahmed Kamili, 25, wrapped in the national flag.

In the Kabylie region, the fiercest arena of the 1990s civil war between the state and hardliner insurgents, almost all businesses and government offices are closed in a general strike in support of the protesters and against the election.

“The baker and pharmacy are the only open shops in the village,” said Mezouane Azouz, a resident of Haizer in the Kabylie region.

Army chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, who has emerged as Algeria’s most powerful political player since Bouteflika was ousted, has pushed for Thursday’s vote as the only way to resolve the political crisis.

In Algeria’s disaffected Kabylie region, the brick has become the symbol of the anti-vote campaign ahead of unpopular presidential elections set for Thursday.

Protesters have even bricked up the entrances to local government offices to prevent the distribution of election material in Tizi-Ouzou, a key city in the region home to much of the North African country’s Berber minority.

Walls where election posters would ordinarily appear are instead daubed with calls for a general strike.

“The strike is a show of force against the election − we want zero voting here,” said Amar Benchikoune, 38, outside his shuttered store. Since Sunday, pharmacies are the only shops to open in the city.

Ethnic Berbers, who mostly live in the mountainous Kabylie region, make up 10 million of Algeria’s 42 million population but have long been marginalised by a state founded on Arab nationalism.

Online, people determined to thwart the vote have changed their profile pictures to a brick with the inscription “ballot.”

“It’s our way of showing our total rejection of the vote,” said Ouerdia, a 55-year-old retiree.

For Mokrane, 29, “they want to organise the vote on the sly but we won’t let them do it.” On Sunday, protesters marched on the district administrative office carrying bricks and bags of cement. Anti-riot police held them off for three hours before withdrawing in the face of the jubilant crowd.

“A free and democratic Algeria,” protesters chanted as they walled off the entrance, which they painted with “No vote.”

“There is no chance of even a sole voter placing a ballot here,” said Boudjemaa Lakhdari, a 36-year-old vendor speaking amid the thronging protesters.

While Kabylie has historically had low election turnouts amid widespread opposition to the central government, Thursday’s presidential vote is unpopular across the country too.

Mass protests, which forced ageing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign his two-decade tenure in April, have taken place weekly across Algeria to demand sweeping reforms ahead of any vote.

The five approved candidates all either supported Bouteflika or participated in his government, including two as prime ministers.

During the three week long campaign, not one of the candidates visited Tizi-Ouzou or Bejaia, the other major city in Kabylie, where protesters wave Amazigh − or Berber − flags, despite a ban.


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