Algerians reject polls without reforms

Updated September 18, 2019

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Algiers: Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest rejecting the Algerian government’s decision to hold elections in December.—Reuters
Algiers: Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest rejecting the Algerian government’s decision to hold elections in December.—Reuters

ALGIERS: Protesters massed in the Algerian capital on Tuesday to demand the cancellation of a controversial presidential election planned for December 12.

Interim leader Abdelkader Bensalah announced the poll on Monday in a bid to resolve the political deadlock gripping the country since the April resignation of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

But activists have demanded political reforms and the removal of Bouteflika loyalists including powerful army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah before any vote takes place.

Led by students, protesters on Tuesday shouted slogans against “the gang” and demanded: “Hey Gaid Salah, forget the elections!” The general, who has become a key powerbroker since Bouteflika’s departure, has led the push for polls by the end of the year in keeping with the constitution. But Hamid, a 57-year-old public servant who took part in Tuesday’s protest, insisted that would not happen.

“We will cancel the December 12 vote just like we cancelled the July 4 election,” he said.

After Bouteflika resigned in the face of mass protests in April, presidential elections were called for July 4.

However the vote was postponed due to a lack of viable candidates, leaving a political vacuum in the North African country.

“If Gaid Salah wants to go against the will of the people, we will demonstrate on election day to show that the people don’t support the vote,” Hamid said.

Protesters have held mass rallies every Tuesday and Friday since 11 February, calling for key regime figures to step down.

“Students represent the majority of voters and we will not participate” in the election, said Samia, a law student at Tuesday’s demonstration.

“We will stay mobilised until our demands are met: the removal of all representatives of Bouteflika’s regime before any election,” she added.

Police detained at least 10 protesters in central Algiers and confiscated mobile phones of people who filmed the arrests, according to a journalist.

Samia said: “How do they expect us to participate in a democratic election when they keep arresting protesters and activists?”

The planned vote has set up a new phase in the showdown between protesters and the state. Mass protests broke out in February, forcing the veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stand down in April, and have continued every week since then to demand a more thorough purging of the ruling elite.

During the spring and summer, the government detained a host of senior figures on corruption charges, but it has also started to put more pressure on protesters, arresting opposition leaders and deploying more police at demonstrations.

Powerful army chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Saleh has for months pushed for an election, saying it is the only way out of the standoff, and on Sunday interim president Abdelkader Ben Salah said it would take place in December.

Since Bouteflika’s resignation, fewer people have attended the weekly protests on Tuesday and Fridays, but those still marching have rejected any election for now, saying there could not be a fair vote while the old guard retains power.

Whether Sunday’s announcement of a presidential election, and the heavier police presence at demonstrations, will quell the protests or reignite them is likely to become clear during the marches in the coming weeks.

Protesters on Tuesday chanted “We will not stop our protests” and “civilian state, no military state”, and demanded the resignation of both Ben Salah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.

Two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, eight ministers and several prominent businessmen have been put in custody after being questioned by judges as part of anti-graft investigations.

However, two prominent opposition figures, Karim Tabou and Lakhdar Bouragaa, have also been detained in recent weeks on charges of “contributing to weakening the army’s morale”.

Samir Belarbi, a well-known activist, was detained on Monday, two lawyers said, though there was no official confirmation from the justice ministry.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2019