ALGIERS, ALGERIA - Five candidates have their eyes on becoming the next president of Algeria - without a leader since April - as voting began in Thursday's contentious election boycotted by a massive pro-democracy movement.
The powerful army chief and his cohorts in the interim government have promised the voting will chart a new era for the gas-rich North African nation that is a strategic partner of the West in countering extremist violence. Those opposed to the voting fear the results will replicate a corrupt, anti-democratic system they are trying to level.
Tension was palpable on the eve of the vote as protesters in at least 10 towns denounced the elections. In Bouira, east of Algiers, the capital, security forces used tear gas to push back protesters who had invaded a voting station in a high school, according to the online TSA news agency, citing witnesses. Several thousand people demonstrated in Algiers.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and are to close at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT). Results were not likely until Friday, to be announced by a newly created National Independent Electoral Authority overseeing the voting. The body was among the nods of authorities to protesters, like the decision for soldiers to vote in civilian clothes at regular polling stations, rather than in barracks.
The five candidates, two of them former prime ministers, Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, endured insults and protests during the 22-day campaign. All five contenders have links to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to resign in April after 20 years in office under pressure from weekly street protests that began in February, with an assist from army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah.
The turnout rate should be a critical indication of whether the contender elected has popular legitimacy. There was no firm indication which of the five had the upper hand ahead of the vote. Opinion polls for elections are not permitted.
Tebboune, 74, was until recently seen as the favorite due to his reportedly close ties to Gaid Salah. However, a 60-year-old former culture minister, Azzedine Mihoubi, a writer and poet, has been touted in the media. Mihoubi has deep ties to the fallen Bouteflika regime. He took over leadership of the National Democratic Rally party, which governed in alliance with the FLN, the sole party for nearly three decades, until 1989, and now in tatters.
Benflis, 75, was making his third attempt at the presidency. A lawyer and former justice minister, he was Bouteflika's top aide before falling out when he ran against him in 2004. He started his own party.
The other candidates are Abdelaziz Belaid, 56, a former figure in the FLN who started his own party, and Abdelkader Bengrini, 57, a one-time tourism minister and former member of the moderate Islamist party, Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP). He then started his own Islamist party el Bina, which like the MSP, backed Bouteflika.
Gaid Salah, who has emerged as the authority figure in the political vacuum, setting the date for the elections, has maintained that the voting is the shortest and surest way to raise Algeria out of its paralyzing political crisis and give birth to a new era. He was the force behind an anti-corruption campaign that has seen top figures jailed and convicted, including Said Bouteflika, the president's brother and chief counselor, sentenced to 15 years in prison in September for "plotting against the state."
Gaid Salah refers to Bouteflika's entourage as "the gang," as do pro-democracy protesters who include Gaid Salah among them.