Algerians headed to the polls on Thursday for local elections that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ruling party is widely expected to win but which the authorities are hoping will see a strong turnout.
Many of the parties and lists competing for the 1,541 municipal and 48 regional assemblies have in recent weeks suggested the outcome of the vote is already known, after claims of widespread fraud in May’s parliamentary polls.
Turnout stood at 14.63 percent by 1200 GMT, according to interior minister Dahou Ould Kablia, down from 19 percent at the same time in local elections held in November 2007.
Thousands of voters braved the poor weather conditions that have affected most of the country’s north since Wednesday, where the electorate is concentrated.
The abstention rate in the May elections, following political reforms launched in the wake of Arab Spring unrest last year, reached 57 percent, official figures showed, and saw Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) tighten its grip on power.
But one opposition party claimed the turnout then did not exceed 18 percent.
The 75-year-old president voted in Algeria’s El Biar area, accompanied by two nephews and his brother Abderrahim Bouteflika.
The newly-appointed Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, said he was “convinced” that the ballot would be a success, especially as the new mayors “will have broader powers.”
In a bid to encourage voters, the authorities agreed to a special payment for those absent from work to vote.
More than 21 million Algerians are eligible to vote in the ballot, which is being contested by 52 political parties and 197 independent lists.
Senior officials in the FLN, which holds a majority in the National Assembly, are expecting an “overwhelming” victory.
Given the likelihood of such a result, Algeria’s oldest opposition group, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) has already denounced irregularities, in a country where every election since the multi-party system was introduced in 1989 has been disputed.
On Tuesday, the candidates of six parties running in Algiers, including FLN members, formed an anti-fraud group to monitor polling stations, and denounced a falsification of electoral lists.
No calls to shun the ballot have been officially registered.
But the leader of the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abassi Madani, called from his base in Qatar for a “massive boycott” of the vote, “to expose the Algerian regime and its oppressive practices.”
Polling stations are due to close at 1800 GMT, with the interior ministry expected to announce the results late on Thursday or on Friday morning.