Algerians were voting to choose a new president on Thursday, eight months after the resignation of long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as opponents protested against a poll they dismiss as a farce.
Voter turnout stood at 7.9 per cent three hours after the polling stations opened, according to Head of the Electoral Commission, Mohammed Sharafi.
About 24 million Algerians are eligible to vote at 60,000 polling stations nationwide to choose one of five contenders vying for the presidency.
“I voted and fulfilled my duty towards the country… Algeria comes first,” Maamari Ammar, 76, said.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Algiers to protest against the election, in spite of a heavy security presence and earlier attempts by security forces to disperse the anti-government rallies.
Protesters also gathered in other cities including Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou and Constantine in the east.
Pressure from street protests and the country’s influential military forced Bouteflika to resign in April.
Since then, protesters have called for key Bouteflika-era officials to depart, and for an overhaul of the political system before an election is held.
“No elections with the gangs,” protesters shouted, referring to those currently in office and were part of the former government.
Samir Omrani, 42, was angered by pictures showing Bouteflika’s brother, Nacer, casting a ballot on behalf of the former president.
“This is a provocation to the people and the movement, which represents the overwhelming majority of Algerians,” Omrani said, describing Bouteflika’s vote as “the head of corruption giving legitimacy to his children.”
Bouteflika, now aged 82, ruled energy-rich Algeria for two decades, an era that was dominated by cronyism and mismanagement.
Authorities launched a crackdown against senior officials and businessmen who were close to Bouteflika.
On Tuesday, two former prime ministers and other senior officials were sentenced to prison terms on charges of squandering public funds and abusing authority.
The presidential hopefuls have vowed to fight corruption and urged Algerians to cast their ballots.
Candidate Abdelaziz Belaid said after voting that he hoped the election leads to “a new republic”.
Belaid urged people to vote “to determine their destiny” in the election he believed will be “a new start towards the future.”
“Long Live Algeria,” former Prime Minister and Presidential candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune said, adding that the polls would make Algeria a “republic of justice.”
Another candidate, Azzedine Mihoubi, said he hoped millions of Algerians will vote to mark “Algeria’s victory day.”
But a sluggish turnout is expected which could chip away at the new president’s legitimacy.
Earlier in the day, in the eastern city of Bejaia, people stormed some polling stations and destroyed the ballots inside, local media reported.
While reports suggested that at least two of the candidates are supported by the military, observers say that all hopefuls will work closely with the army and its powerful Chief of Staff, Gaid Salah.