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Algerians show fierce opposition to elections in mass #NoVote marches

Algerians hold up signs saying ‘no to the vote’ at Friday’s demonstrations [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 December, 2019

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‘Say no to voting with this regime’: Thousands marched in Algeria’s cities days ahead of elections that the pro-democracy movement are calling a power grab by the old political elite.
Enormous crowds marched in the streets of Algiers on the final Friday before a contentious presidential election many see as an attempt by the old elite to cling on to power despite months of protests demanding political overhaul.

"No to voting, we swear we will not stop!" protesters chanted. "No retreat!"

Algerians will head to the polls on Thursday, but have been given a choice of five candidates, all with links to ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Two of the approved runners even served as prime ministers during the ex-strongman's two-decade tenure, which ended in April with his resignation in the face of huge protests.

Comment: Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started

Protesters, who fear Bouteflika allies will use the vote to usher in a successor from their own ranks, have demanded no vote take place until after sweeping reforms have been implemented in the North African country.

Despite their not being an official tally of the size of Friday’s protests, footage showed streets filled with thousands of people, waving flags, singing the national anthem and chanting anti-government slogans.

Many held placards emblazoned with the word “no”.

Crowds also rallied in the cities of Oran, Constantine, Setif, Bejaia and others.

The rally in the capital is thought to be the largest since November 1, when citizens took to the streets and demanded a second "liberation" on the 65th anniversary of the start of the war for independence from France.

Counter-protest measures

Checkpoints outside the capital only allowed in vehicles registered in Algiers, while busloads of plain-clothed and anti-riot police were deployed to the city centre, equipped with water cannons.

Protesters on Friday shouted their support for a general strike set for Sunday and demanded civilian - rather than "military" - rule.

Since Bouteflika stepped down, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has emerged as the country's de facto ruler.

A firm and consistent proponent of elections, the army chief on Tuesday called for a massive turnout in the poll, slamming what he dubbed detractors' "plotting against the fatherland".

In an address carried by public and private TV stations on Friday, he said the vote would be an "important deadline" and "an electoral party".

But protesters in the streets of Algiers shouted a sharp rebuke: "Gaid Salah, forget the vote!"

'Pre-vote crackdown'

‘I don’t vote against my country,’ reads a protest sign at the anti-government
demonstration in Algiers on December 6, 2019, ahead of the presidential
vote scheduled for December 12 [Getty]

However, authorities have downplayed the level of opposition to the poll.

"Marches in support of the presidential vote are larger than those against it," the head of Algeria's election authority, Mohamed Charfi, insisted during an interview with Saudi-owned news channel Al-Hadath.

According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities have "escalated their pre-election crackdown on protests" in recent weeks, "carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests".

Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune sparked outrage earlier in the week when he called opponents of the vote "traitors, mercenaries, homosexuals".

"If, as the minister says, those who march are homosexuals, then I'm going to the Gay Pride parade to say no to voting for people who endorsed corrupt (leaders)," said Aicha, a retired civil servant.

Friday marks the 42nd consecutive week the "Hirak" protest movement has organised marches across the country.

"I am not against voting, I am against this election because it is only serving to recycle Bouteflika figures," said Fatiha Bendahmane.

Former prime ministers Ali Benflis, 75, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, are considered the frontrunners in the presidential vote.

Three other figures who either participated in Bouteflika-era governments or supported the former strongman have also been cleared to run.

"We will have a new name but the same policies that destroyed the economy of this country," said Bendamane, a 55-year-old teacher preparing to demonstrate in Algiers.

"I will march today to say no to voting with this regime."

Despite demonstrators' clear disdain, the five candidates approved by electoral authorities have all sought to portray themselves as close to the protest movement.

In a televised debate on Friday - the first such broadcast event in Algeria's history - the five faced 13 questions, mainly on the political, economic and social situation in the country. 

The Munathara Initiative, an NGO in neighbouring Tunisia which promotes open debate in the Arab world, said the debate "did not meet international standards of transparency and independence".

No opinion polls have been published that indicate the likely turnout.

But in previous elections, abstention has been viewed as the only way to challenge an entrenched system that has long produced presidents chosen by the army and confirmed in fraudulent elections.

Amine Soulime, a 60-year-old lawyer who did not protest on Friday, said that come election day he would be "putting an empty envelope in the ballot box".

"No candidate satisfies me but voting is a right and a duty," he said.

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