ALGIERS Algerians voted on Thursday in an election President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win after 15 years in power, despite speaking only rarely in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
With the dominant National Liberation Front (FLN) party, allied movements and unions behind him, many Algerians believe Bouteflika, 77, is almost assured of victory and another five years governing the North African OPEC state.
Algeria is seen as a partner in Washington's campaign against Islamist militancy in the Maghreb and a stable supplier of around a fifth of Europe's gas imports.
But concerns about Bouteflika's health and how Algeria manages any transition have raised questions about stability in a region where neighboring Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are still in turmoil after the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Bouteflika himself voted sitting in a wheelchair in Algiers' El Biar district. He did not give any statement and briefly shook hands with supporters before leaving the polling station.
"No country is 100 percent good, but the things he has done, he has done well," said Abdessaid Said, a retired technician who voted for Bouteflika in Algiers' Bab El Oued district.
"I know he is ill, but I vote for him for what he has done for us. And he can still govern."
Loyalists portray Bouteflika as the man who helped stabilize Algeria after a war with Islamist militants in the 1990s that killed around 200,000 people.
But several opposition parties have boycotted the election, saying it is slanted in the president's favor and unlikely to bring reforms to a system little changed since independence from France in 1962.
Ali Benflis, a former FLN chief who is now the opposition frontrunner, has warned of possible fraud in the vote.
Bouteflika, a veteran of Algeria's war of independence, won the 2009 election with 90 percent of the vote. In 2004, Benflis lost to Bouteflika in a ballot he said was tainted by fraud on an "industrial" scale.
Police on Wednesday broke up a small rally by an anti-government movement called "Barakat", or "Enough", which is calling for peaceful change with rare public protests.
Results of the election are due on Friday at the earliest.
CALLS FOR REFORM
Since the stroke that put him in a Paris hospital for three months, Bouteflika has appeared only rarely in public, usually when speaking with visiting dignitaries. He did not campaign, though allies say he is well enough to govern.
Opposition leaders say it is time for him to make good on promises to hand over to a new generation of leaders, tackle corruption and open up an economy hampered by restrictions dating back to Algeria's post-independence socialism.
Many Algerians say that since independence, their politics has been controlled by a cabal of FLN elites and army generals who, while competing behind the scenes for influence, see themselves as guarantors of stability.
Bouteflika's allies have tried to strengthen his position by reducing the influence of the powerful military intelligence chief, who for years played the role of kingmaker.
Still, analysts say, political rivalries may resurface if Bouteflika's health ebbs during a fourth term.
His allies are promising constitutional amendments to open up a system that critics say has resisted reform since the old guard of FLN chieftains won independence from France.
But many younger Algerians say they feel disconnected with their country's political leadership.
"I have decided not to vote because I'm fed up with promises," said Ahmed Djemi, drinking coffee in Bab El Oued district, complaining about the fact that has been waiting for years to get an apartment.
Riots and protests over services, housing and food costs have erupted, but the opposition remains divided and unable to challenge the dominance of the FLN, its allies and unions.
The state has built up huge foreign reserves from its energy sales - around $200 billion - and has spent heavily on subsidies and social programs to ward off Arab Spring-style protests.
Analysts say the country needs reforms to overhaul an economy hampered by restrictions on foreign investment and to attract more heavyweight petroleum players to boost stagnating oil and gas production.
"Our country needs new blood," said Habiba, a woman voting in Algiers.
"But I think we should prioritize stability and peace."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Andrew Roche)