, ALGIERS, Apr 9 – Polls are open in an election in Algeria in which President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is hoping for a third term, a big turnout and a crushing victory over his five rivals.
"Vote, even vote against me, but vote," he has been urging the country’s 20.6 million electors as he criss-crossed the country in search of a third five-year term.
Bouteflika’s re-election appears to be a foregone conclusion, not least because the poll is being boycotted by the traditional opposition.
He hopes that a score better than the 84.99 percent he achieved in 2004 will give him an enhanced authority.
"A president who is not elected with a crushing majority is not a president," he said when launching his candidature, the constitution having been changed to allow him to stand for a third term.
In 2004, turnout was a little under 60 percent of those eligible to vote.
Bouteflika’s five mostly little-known and cash-strapped rivals are also appealing for a high turnout, calling on Algerians to vote against corruption, cronyism, social injustice and unfair division of wealth.
"No winner can collect 50 percent of the vote (enough for an outright win) in the first round because I have seen how angry" people are, Djahid Younsi (El Islah, moderate Islamist) said.
Louisa Hanoune, the only woman candidate and leader of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party (PT), is the only opposition candidate to have a political base and a programme she has put forward for years. But she collected only one percent of the vote in 2004.
Moussa Touati, president of the nationalist Algerian National Front (FNA), Mohamed Said of the moderate Islamist Justice and Liberty Party (PJL) running as an independent and Ali Fawzi Rebaine of the AHD-54 nationalist party, who won 0.63 percent of the vote in 2004, have all criticised the resources made available to "just one candidate".
Bouteflika has been playing up his 10 years in office, promising "stability and continuity" with a five-year 150-billion-dollar (115-billion-euro) development plan to create three million jobs and build a million homes.
To head off charges of electoral fraud, Interior Minister Nouredine Yazi Zerhouni has insisted that "the electoral system guaranteeing transparency and respect for the results of the vote is assured."
He said that African Union, Organization of the Islamic Conference and Arab League observers would be present. The United Nations has sent a review mission that will report back to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Zerhouni said that security measures to protect voters would be in place, in the face of potential threats from armed Islamists of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, active in some regions.
The head of Al-Qaeda’s branch in North Africa called on Algerians to boycott this week’s presidential election in an audio message posted on an Islamist website on Monday.
"The least way to reject this evil is to boycott these presidential elections and to reject them completely," said Abu Mussaab Abdul Wadud, whose real name is Abdulmalek Droukdel. The message’s authenticity could not be verified.
During the campaign Bouteflika had raised the possibility of a referendum on a general amnesty for Islamists who "surrendered definitively" to strengthen his policy of national reconciliation which has led several thousand Islamists to lay down their arms.
Voting begins at 0700 GMT and ends at 1900 GMT.