By Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS -Algeria held parliamentary elections on Saturday that the ruling establishment hopes will turn a page on political unrest amid a crackdown on dissent, but early indications suggested few people were voting.
Two years after mass demonstrations forced a veteran president to step down in Algeria’s biggest political crisis for decades, the authorities are still struggling to quell the protest movement.
Saturday’s vote follows a presidential election in 2019 and a referendum on an amended constitution last year, but many Algerians still think real power is wielded by the army and security forces.
The election authority said only 3.78% of voters had cast ballots two hours after polls opened. By comparison, some 7.92% had voted three hours into the 2019 presidential election, when final turnout was 40%.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said decisions were made by the majority of those who voted, regardless of turnout.
“This election is a new step to build a new Algeria,” he said after voting outside the capital, Algiers.
Schoolteacher Ali Djemai, 33, started queuing early to cast his vote in the city. “We hope the next parliament will be a force pressing for change that the majority want,” he said.
But in the Kabylie region, which has often been a focus of opposition to the authorities, riot police guarded polling stations where activists sought to burn ballot boxes and some voting centres closed early.
The “Hirak” protest movement that forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the presidency two years ago wants to oust the old ruling elite and stop the army interfering in politics. It sees any elections before that as a charade.
“Elections will not give the regime legitimacy, and repression and arrests will not stop the people’s peaceful revolution,” said Samir Belarbi, a prominent Hirak figure.
Though the government publicly welcomed Hirak as a movement of national renewal and jailed senior former officials, police also cracked down on it with arrests.
The parties that have dominated for decades were damaged by corruption charges against Bouteflika’s allies, creating space for independents and moderate Islamist parties to seek more votes.
“There is a real chance for change. We need to be focused and patient because a system change won’t happen overnight,” said Mohamed Mouloudi, a candidate for Al Bina Islamist party.
Polls are scheduled to close at 1900 GMT, though in previous elections they have been kept open later. Results will be announced on Sunday.
At a central Algiers cafe, 42-year-old post office worker Djamel Badir said the election would change nothing and he would not vote. “Our parliament is powerless,” he said.
Parties that gain a strong position in parliament are likely to be part of Tebboune’s next government, which faces a looming economic crisis.
Foreign currency reserves have dropped by four fifths since 2013 as energy revenue fell and successive governments have failed to diversify the economy or spur strong private sector growth.