ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria voted on Thursday in an election the ruling elite says will set the country, left behind by the “Arab Spring”, on the road to real democracy, but people showed their skepticism by abstaining in large numbers.
Last year’s upheavals in the region have created pressure for reform and a renewal of the ageing establishment that has ruled without interruption since independence from France half a century ago.
The authorities in energy exporter Algeria have responded by promising an “Algerian Spring” - a managed process of reform they offer as a counterpoint to the upheavals elsewhere.
Many Algerians, however, see elections as futile because real power, they say, lies with an informal network which is commonly known by the French term “le pouvoir”, or “the power”, and has its roots in the security forces. Officials say the country is ruled by democratically elected officials.
Reuters reporters in the capital, Algiers, in fishing villages on the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and in the Kabylie mountains to the east, said only a trickle of people were going into polling stations.
The election is likely to give the biggest share of seats in parliament for the first time in Algeria’s history to moderate Islamists, mirroring the trend in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
“The young people will make an Algerian Spring in this election,” said Bouguera Soltani, whose mildly Islamist “Green Alliance” coalition is tipped to become the dominant force in the new parliament.
“The 2012 parliament is different from the previous ones because it will have new prerogatives. People who boycott (the vote) will regret it,” he said as he voted near his home in Staoueli, a town west of the capital.
Many Algerians, however, believe the vote will change little because parliament has only limited powers and even the opposition parties have ties to the establishment.
Holding a plastic cup of coffee at a pavement cafe in the town of Zeralda, west of the capital, a man in his thirties said he had no plans to get up and go to a polling station. “What’s the use? Parliament has no power,” Karim Chiba said.
Those who voted did so more out of a sense of civic duty than any enthusiasm. “How do I express myself if I don’t vote? It’s a civilizational act, to change things peacefully,” said Djamel Abbi, a 43-year-old teacher.
A Reuters reporter who stood for 45 minutes outside a polling station in Bab El Oued, a working class neighborhood in the capital, said he did not see a single voter enter. At two other polling stations, about 10 percent of those registered to vote had shown up by mid-afternoon.
Nevertheless, Algerian state television showed long lines of people waiting to vote. Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, who is overseeing the election, said turnout with about four hours to go until voting closes was 27.04 percent.
Despite the apathy, there is little appetite for a revolt. Energy revenues in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe’s imported natural gas, have lifted living standards, and people look with alarm at the bloodshed in neighboring Libya after its insurrection.
In Algeria, a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still casts a shadow. The fighting started after the military-backed government annulled an election which hardline Islamists were poised to win.
Those Islamists are now either dead, in jail, in exile or have renounced politics.
The generation of Islamists now challenging for seats in parliament is very different. They reject radical change. Some of their leaders are already ministers in the government.
Many of them voted in Staoueli on Thursday because it is the nearest polling station to their homes in Club des Pins, a exclusive state-owned compound on the Mediterranean shore reserved for ministers and members of parliament.
The interior minister is expected to announce the first result of the voting on Friday. After that, Algerians will turn their focus to what is likely to be a more important contest.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 75 and frail-looking, is unlikely to run again when his fourth term expires in 2014, and some people believe he could even step down before then.
Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria; Editing by Myra MacDonald