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Algeria's Bouteflika set for re-election, foes cry fraud

Source: Reuters - Fri, 18 Apr 2014 11:49 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Bouteflika, 77, in wheelchair to cast vote

* Veteran president likely to win fourth term

* Opposition boycotts election

By Patrick Markey

ALGIERS, April 18 (Reuters) - Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appeared set to win re-election for another five years on Friday after a vote opponents dismissed as a stage-managed fraud to keep the ailing leader in power.

Sitting a wheelchair, Bouteflika cast his vote on Thursday in a rare public appearance since suffering a stroke last year that has raised doubts about whether, after 15 years in power, he is fit enough to govern the North African oil state.

Official results were scheduled to be released later on Friday by the interior ministry, but Bouteflika's allies on Thursday were already claiming a landslide victory for the veteran of Algeria's independence war.

Bouteflika, 77, was already widely expected to win with the backing of the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) party, which has dominated the political system since independence from France in 1962.

Loyalists praise him for helping bring the country out of a 1990s war with Islamists that killed 200,000 people and many Algerians are fearful of the sort of turmoil that has swept neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya since their "Arab Spring" revolts in 2011.

"It will be Bouteflika, there won't be any change," said Abdelkiem, waiting in an Algiers barbershop.

"Algerians vote for stability. They are worried about change, we already passed through that before."

Six opposition parties boycotted Thursday's vote, saying it would not reform a system mostly closed to change since the FLN's one-party rule in the early post-independence years.

Voting passed mostly peacefully, but in two villages east of Algiers, gendarmerie troops fired tear gas and clashed with youths who tried to disrupt voting.

"There has been a violation of the will of the people," Bouteflika's main rival and former ally Ali Benflis said on Thursday, saying he would not accept what he dismissed as a fraud. "I completely reject these results."

Bouteflika won 90 percent of the vote in 2009 and 85 percent in 2004, when Benflis alleged fraud on an "industrial" scale.

SHOCKING IMAGE

Many Algerians say an ageing elite of FLN leaders, business magnates and army generals - known as "Le Pouvoir" or "The Power", in French - manages politics in behind-the-scenes negotiations and see themselves as guardians of status quo.

Bouteflika in the past had said it was time for his generation to step aside, but his appearance in a wheelchair at a polling station was a striking image for many Algerians.

"It came as a shock to see a man sitting in a wheelchair to vote while seeking to run a large country for five years. It's not good for the image of Algeria," said Mohamed, a 26-year-old university student.

Algeria mostly escaped the "Arab Spring" unrest that has toppled long-standing leaders in the region.

Some Algerians point to the 1980s when the FLN opened up one-party rule to opposition and brought an Islamist party close to election victory. The FLN suspended the vote, and the country slipped into more than a decade of war.

Riots and protests are common among younger Algerians frustrated over joblessness, economic opportunities and housing shortages.

A small movement, called Barakat or "Enough" in local dialect, emerged after Bouteflika's re-election bid to call for peaceful change. But large-scale political protests are rare.

With around $200 billion in foreign reserves from energy sales, Bouteflika spent heavily in 2011 on subsidies, cheap credits and housing to calm rioting over food prices.

Analysts say that after years of state-controlled policies, the OPEC member state needs reforms to open up its economy to more foreign investment and attract more big oil operators to revive its stagnant energy production. (Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi; editing by Andrew Roche)

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