May 17, 2007 / 7:32 AM / 13 years ago

Algeria assembly vote draws low turnout

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Apathetic Algerians voted in low numbers on Thursday for a parliament widely seen as subservient to the powerful presidency, ignoring a government appeal to turn the election into a display of opposition to Islamist rebels.

Algerian election workers count ballots after the end of the voting in parliamentary elections in Algiers May 17, 2007. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

Attacks by Islamist groups have threatened the north African country’s attempts to rebuild after years of political bloodshed and police searched voters as they entered polling stations.

In Algiers’ Ouled Fayet district, Hadj Smain Hamdane, 60, said: “I am voting because it’s a routine for me that I have never missed. But to be frank I am not expecting any changes.”

The presidency is the most powerful office of state in Algeria, a major oil and gas exporter, and Algerians tend to say it is the incumbent, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, rather than parliament who holds the key to a better future.

In the Casbah, the crumbling, Turkish-era old city where French paratroopers fought pro-independence guerrillas in the 1957 Battle of Algiers, some voters appeared upbeat even if they recognized the limits of the assembly’s power.

“I am here because I want to take part in boosting national reconciliation. Our country also needs to launch a real war on poverty and unemployment,” said middle-aged voter Aicha Bachi.

In the neighboring Bab El Oued district, Fatima Hadj, 43, said: “Our parliament isn’t powerful enough to make important decisions. But I don’t want to boycott because the national assembly can help resolve our social problems.”

In the Saharan south, blue-robed Touareg tribesmen voted in temperatures near 40 degrees Celsius, state television showed.

Voting stations closed at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT), and final results are due at 0900 GMT on Friday. The assembly is likely to remain dominated by the three parties of a governing coalition.

Turnout was low, with 28 percent of voters having cast their ballots by 5 p.m. compared with 38 percent at the same time in the previous elections in 2002, officials said.

The poll to choose the 389 members of the lower house of parliament is the third since an Islamist revolt erupted after the cancellation of a national election in January 1992, which a now-outlawed Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to win.

Up to 200,000 people have been killed in political violence since then.

“PEOPLE MUST VOTE”

The bloodshed has diminished sharply in recent years, but lingers on. A triple bombing claimed by al Qaeda killed 33 in Algiers on April 11. One policeman was killed when two small bombs exploded in the eastern city of Constantine on Wednesday.

Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing called on Algerians to boycott the election which it condemned as a “farce”.

Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni told reporters: “People must vote, because voting means that you are against terrorism. You can vote for whomever you want, but vote.”

The National Liberation Front (FLN) is expected to keep its position as the largest single party, and the pro-government Rally for National Democracy (RND) is likely to take second place. They are part of a ruling coalition with the Movement of Society for Peace, a moderate Islamist party.

Algeria has amassed $80 billion in foreign exchange reserves thanks to high oil and gas prices. The government plans to spend $140 billion to build schools, roads, hospitals and railways.

Slideshow (4 Images)

But the non-energy sector, which provides most jobs, remains dominated by inefficient, overmanned, state-owned firms.

Social problems are still Algerians’ main concern, with unemployment among adults under 30 at a dismal 75 percent.

Additional reporting by Sabina Zawadzki

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