* Algeria pushing for high turnout in local elections
* Government tries to avoid unrest ahead of 2014
By Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Nov 28 Algeria is hoping that a fair
turnout in municipal elections on Thursday will strengthen the
credibility of a political system that has survived the Arab
Spring without major protests but failed to meet hopes for
The memory of a brutal civil war in the 1990s between
Islamists and the state that killed around 200,000 people is a
key factor, analysts say, that has held Algerians back from mass
protests like those that swept away rulers in neighbouring
Tunisia and Libya, as well as Egypt and Yemen.
The OPEC member, which supplies about a fifth of Europe's
imported gas, and key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda,
has also used its energy revenues to lift living standards with
increased social spending.
But if apathy wins out in a vote for councils with little
power, authorities could find pressure rising to institute real
reforms in an ossified post-colonial political system in which
army generals remain the real power behind the scenes.
Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia has said the government
wants to equal the 43 percent turnout of five years ago, talking
of hopes for 40-45 percent of 20 million eligible voters taking
part out of Algeria's 37 million population.
"Let's all participate in local development!" reads one of
many election posters that festoon the streets of the North
African state's capital.
The North African state saw some rioting last year over high
prices, unemployment and a lack of housing units, but President
Abdelaziz Bouteflika responded with a pay rise for public sector
employees, free loans for young entrepreneurs and continued
subsidies on basic foodstuffs.
Algeria has been classified by the International Monetary
Fund as the least indebted among the 20 countries in the Middle
East and North Africa, with large dollar reserves of $186
billion in the first half of 2012.
But the state, reliant on an energy sector that employs
relatively few people, cannot generate enough jobs for a growing
population. The private sector is still in its infancy.
"People's livelihoods depend on this local election," said
Farouk Ksentini, head of the pro-government Consultative
Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
Standing in front of an Algiers bakery, Mohamed Benhakim was
Like many Algerians, he believes change will come only
through the next presidential vote, due in 2014. Bouteflika, 75,
is serving his third five-year term and is not expected to run
in the 2014 election.
"I'm expecting nothing from the election," the 30-year-old
Real power lies not with mayors heading the elected
municipal councils, but with appointed provincial officials,
despite government promises to reform the system.
Many potential voters complain that this limits the ability
of local bodies to find local solutions to problems of
unemployment and housing shortages. "The mayor should have the
last say," said Zakia Hachi, a university student.
Voters will choose mayors for the country's 1,541 town
assemblies, and around 60 political parties are putting up
candidates, yet mayors complain that they have little sway.
"I have no power and no financial resources to create jobs
for my people," complained Rabah Zerouali, a mayor in Dellys, a
coastal town about 80 km east of Algiers.
Some Algerian commentators are expecting low turnout in
Thursday's election, despite the government campaign.
"I'm even capable of calling for a boycott of an election in
which I'm a candidate," wrote Maamar Farah, a columnist with
independent daily Le Soir d'Algerie.
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Andrew Hammond)