Millions of Algerians are to vote for a new president in a controversial poll likely to be shunned by the country’s mass protest movement, paving the way for future instability.
The Hirak opposition movement, which emerged this year from weekly demonstrations against the former French colony’s political establishment, has said the poll cannot be considered free or fair while the ruling elite, including the military, stay in power.
All five candidates have close links with the establishment, leading many Algerians to see Thursday’s election as part of a strategy to avoid genuine change.
“The elections have no legitimacy whatsoever, they seem more like a comedy show than anything else. We want a transition, a real one, with people who have no ties with the old regime,” said Yasmine Bouchene, a 29-year-old protester and member of Les Jeunes Engagés activist collective.
A vast crowd rallied in Algiers, the capital, on Friday chanting “No to voting, we swear we will not stop!” and “No retreat”.
Marches took place across the country, including in the major cities of Oran and Constantine.
Two of the approved candidates served as prime ministers to the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to step down after 20 years in power following huge demonstrations in April.
In a televised debate on Friday – the first such broadcast event in Algeria’s history – the five faced 13 questions, mainly on the country’s political, economic and social situation.
The army and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party that won independence from France in 1962 and has ruled ever since, have pledged the vote will be free.
Hirak’s opposition to the election means the turnout on Thursday will be crucial – with the army and ruling establishment hoping for enough participation to ensure the legitimacy of a new president who can move to end protest. Demonstrators say no vote should take place until after sweeping changes.
Zellag Lamine, 33, who works for a national telecommunications company and has taken part in the protests since February, said he had yet to decide if he would cast his vote. “Like every Algerian, I want a country that respects rights. We need to put pressure on those in charge to solve the real problems in this country,” he said.
Algeria began a high-profile corruption trial of senior officials last week.
James McDougall, a history professor at Oxford University and author of a book on the history of Algeria, said the move was aimed at boosting the credibility of the government’s pledges to tackle corruption.
“There has been a bit of a shift. But [those in power] think they can win the war of attrition between the system and the movement … If they can pin these guys as the gang [responsible for corruption] then that will appease a certain amount of popular anger,” he said.
Endemic graft was one issue that prompted protesters on to the streets of Algerian cities and towns in late February when it became clear that Bouteflika, 82, would seek a fifth term in power.
The youngest of the five candidates is 56, while the majority of Algeria’s population are under 30 years old. The candidates have been described by western diplomats in Algiers as “the softest version of Bouteflika’s system”.
“The central demand of protesters since the fall of Bouteflika has been for a change in the system, so as to ensure that the same people are not holding the ropes. However, the only reforms have been surface deep,” said Chloe Teevan, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The candidates have struggled to campaign, with hostile crowds gathering outside poorly attended rallies in heavily guarded venues. Election posters have been torn down.
Authorities have intensified pressure on the protest movement in recent months, prosecuting some prominent leaders and detaining more than 150, including journalists, labour activists and a critical cartoonist.
“The regime put in jail any person from the Hirak who got too big, which proved that there was never going to be a real transition or transparency by doing things on their terms,” Bouchene said.
The authorities’ rhetoric has hardened as the poll has neared. Since Bouteflika stepped down, the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has emerged as the country’s de facto ruler.
Salah has described opponents of the election as “a criminal gang … full of bitterness and visceral hate for this country”, and said he had ordered security forces to stop any planned disturbances of the poll.
“We once more warn … anyone tempted to … try to prevent citizens exercising their constitutional rights that they will face justice and every power of the state,” Salah said in a speech last week.
Tensions within the protest movement may help the authorities. McDougall said the nature of demonstrations had changed in recent months, becoming less festive and creative and attracting older protesters, including more Islamists.
“There is some evidence of fragmentation. The [political establishment] hope to get through the next few months, or year, and wait for the protest movement to peter out,” he said.