By Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed
Algeria held parliamentary elections on Saturday that the ruling elite hopes will turn a page on political unrest amid a crackdown on dissent, but which many voters were expected to ignore.
While the authorities want a high turnout, few people have participated in recent votes, with many Algerians convinced real power is wielded by the army and security forces.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said decisions were made by a majority who voted, no matter what the turnout.
“This election is a new step to build a new Algeria,” he said after voting outside Algiers.
In the capital, school teacher Ali Djemai had started queuing early to cast his vote. “We hope the next parliament will be a force pressing for change that the majority want,” the 33-year-old said.
But in the Kabylie region, which has often been a focus of opposition to the authorities, riot police guarded polling stations where activists sought to burn ballot boxes.
The voting centre at Meni Said school closed its doors only two hours after opening, and elsewhere in the region ballot papers lay scattered across a road.
The election takes place against the backdrop of political upheaval after the leaderless “Hirak” protest movement led to the ousting of veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
The Hirak wants a purge of the ruling elite and the army's withdrawal from politics, and says any elections that take place before those goals are met can be nothing but a charade.
“Elections will not give the regime legitimacy, and repression and arrests will not stop the people's peaceful revolution,” said Samir Belarbi, a prominent Hirak figure.
Though the government publicly welcomed Hirak as a movement of national renewal and jailed senior former officials, police also cracked down on it with arrests.
The parties that have dominated for decades were damaged by corruption charges against Bouteflika's allies, creating space for independents and moderate Islamist parties to seek more votes.
“There is a real chance for change. We need to be focused and patient because a system change won't happen overnight,”said Mohamed Mouloudi, a candidate for Al Bina Islamist party.
Polls are scheduled to close at 1900 GMT, though in previous elections they have been kept open later. Results will be announced on Sunday.
At a central Algiers cafe, 42-year-old post office worker Djamel Badir said the election would change nothing and he would not vote.
“Our parliament is powerless,” he said.
Parties that gain a strong position in parliament are likely to be part of Tebboune's next government, which faces a looming economic crisis.
Foreign currency reserves have dropped by four fifths since 2013 as energy revenue fell and successive governments have failed to diversify the economy or spur strong private sector growth.