ALGIERS // Algerians turned out in droves to hand the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika a third five-year term in a landslide re-election, officials said yesterday. But opposition parties have accused authorities of massive fraud in an election that hinged not on who Algerians would vote for, but on whether they would vote at all.
Since he was first elected in 1999, Mr Bouteflika, 72, has steered Algeria out of devastating civil war that killed some 150,000. But high unemployment, rising costs of living and disillusionment with their country's politics have alienated a generation of young Algerians, who form the bulk of voters. Thursday's election strengthens democracy in Algeria, the interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni, said yesterday. "It marks incontestable progress for freedom of expression and the act of voting."
Official figures put turnout at 74.54 per cent, with Mr Bouteflika taking 90.24 per cent of the vote. However, polling stations in the capital were largely deserted on Thursday. Cries of foul play have dogged the electoral process since parliament lifted presidential term limits in November, widely seen as a manoeuvre to allow Mr Bouteflika to keep his job. The president's supporters have argued that no other figure matches his experience and political weight.
Mr Bouteflika has won praise for re-establishing the role of civilian leaders following military dominance after civil war broke out in 1992 between government forces and an Islamist insurgency, and was re-elected in a landslide in 2004. But many Algerians have come to associate Mr Bouteflika with ossified politics and elusive prosperity. The country's booming hydrocarbons industry has not eased unemployment, while the government has so far failed to fulfil pledges to create one million new jobs and housing units.
Mr Bouteflika has promised to spend US$150 billion (Dh550.5bn) of surplus oil revenues on development. Opposition parties have accused Mr Bouteflika of eroding Algerian democracy. Major rivals refused to take part in the election and called for a boycott, leaving Mr Bouteflika virtually unchallenged. But he managed to avoid a repeat of legislative elections in 2007, when disaffected voters achieved a record low turnout of 35 per cent.
Campaign workers have blanketed the country in posters bearing Mr Bouteflika's image, while more than 200 observers from the African Union, Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Conference were brought in for the election. Sceptical opposition parties also put their own observers on the ground. "This election is not an affair of the people," said Hassan, an activist from the secularist Rally for Culture and Democracy, who spent an hour at a polling station in central Algiers on Thursday morning. "In that time, I saw just two people vote."
Statements on Thursday evening from the Rally for Culture and Democracy and the Socialist Forces Front, which both boycotted the election, estimated voter turnout at less than 18 per cent. The parties are accusing election officials of stuffing ballot boxes and say police intimidated voters. Yesterday, four of Mr Bouteflika's five defeated rivals also disputed the official election results, according to AFP.
The first preliminary results were aired late on Thursday, sending a procession of cars racing through central Algiers, horns blaring and the jubilant Bouteflika supporters hanging out the windows to cheer their victory. On one street corner, a knot of young men grumbled as the cars raced by. "I even worked for the Bouteflika campaign," said Sidi Ali, 27, who did not wish to give his surname. "But I didn't do it for him - I did it for 3,000 dinars (Dh155) a day."