By Enes Canlı
ANKARA (AA) - Algerians will head to polls on Thursday to elect a new president, eight months after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in the backdrop of popular protests against his 20-year rule.
In February, the country’s ruling National Liberation Front (NLF) nominated the 82-year-old Bouteflika, who has ruled Algeria since 1999, to run for a fifth term in office.
After Bouteflika declared his candidacy on March 3 and gained support from the regime’s leading parties, people started to take to the streets against the decision.
But on March 11, following protests against his presidential bid, Bouteflika abruptly postponed the polls -- originally slated for April 18 -- and formally withdrew his candidacy.
However, Algerians continued to stage demonstrations against the aging leader, accusing him of trying to unconstitutionally extend his fourth term in office.
On April 2, Bouteflika stepped down after Algerian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Saleh called for his immediate departure.
Following Bouteflika’s forced resignation, Saleh -- who is believed to be the current de facto ruler by many -- insisted on holding a presidential election to end the crisis and avoid political impasse.
On April 10, the election was scheduled for July 4 before being postponed by Algeria’s Constitutional Council.
On April 16, opposition groups announced plans to boycott the presidential polls.
In a joint statement, several leading opposition parties -- including the Development and Justice Party, Al-Nahda and Al-Benaa al-Watani -- described, at the time, the upcoming polls as “an attempt by the illegitimate authority to replicate itself through false elections".
The delay of the polls came after a months-long arm wrestles between authorities and protesters. The demonstrators demand “yetnahaw gaa”, or they all must go, referring to the political and military elite overseeing the ongoing transition.
On Sept. 15, interim Prime Minister Abdelkader Bensalah said that the country will hold presidential elections on Dec. 12., stressing that the date had been decided after talks with stakeholders.
On Wednesday, several Algerian students and other opponents took to the streets in the capital, rejecting the upcoming elections under the current political structure.
Since April, Algerians have been expressing their distrust in Bouteflika’s men -- including interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and former head of the Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz, who resigned on April 16 following protests.
During the protests, many activists and opponents were arrested, while some of them were remanded in custody.
On Wednesday, Saleh said the army discovered and foiled a plot aimed at destroying the country.
- Candidates on TV, protesters in streets
The mass movement on the streets overshadowed the election campaigns. Candidates make promises on television on Friday night and thousands of Algerians continue their protest every Friday.
The election campaign meetings of the candidates also faced protests.
The walls, which would be used for hanging candidates’ posters, were left empty in the capital.
In other cities, unfavorable slogans have been written on the posters.
There are nearly 24.5 million voters in Algeria. Turnout is expected to be low due to current circumstances. International watchdogs are also not allowed to observe the election.
- Bouteflika’s remains on ballots
Protesters are not enthusiastic about the Dec. 12 presidential contest as they believe that the five candidates running in the polls were involved with Bouteflika’s regime.
Five candidates -- including Abdelmajid Tebboune, Ali Benflis, Azzedine Mihoubi, Abdelaziz Belaid, and Abdelkader Bengrina -- will run in the polls.
Benflis, who had given support to protesting people, was also protested. In a television program, Benflis, 75, acknowledged that the conditions for elections have not been fulfilled.
Among one of the favorite candidates, Benflis promised a dialogue with those opposing the elections.
Tebboune, 74, a former prime minister, is also protested for his close relations with Saleh. Tebboune is accused of having ties with businessmen who were arrested for alleged corruption.
Bengrina said he will put effort to turn Syria back into Arab League. A former Minister of Tourism and Handicrafts, Bengrina, 57, promised to hold a plebiscite on the bill that reduces sentences for the corruption convicts if they return the smuggled goods.
Azzedine Mihoubi, 60, interim General Secretary of the Democratic National Rally (RND), said: “I am a statesman, not a man of Bouteflika or any other personality.”
Belaid, 56, was not part of Bouteflika’s Cabinet. He was a member of parliament representing the National Liberation Front (NLF) and is known for his support for Bouteflika. Belaid was also a candidate in the 2014 elections and took the third place.
- Army chief of staff insist on holding elections
The country’s Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh insists on holding presidential elections despite protests.
According to Saleh, the transition process will be completed by a newly elected president.
Following the resignation of Bouteflika, a wave of an investigation into the country's most influential names has begun due to a signal that came from Saleh.
During this period, corruption investigations were initiated and arrest warrants were issued for former president's brother Said Bouteflika, former prime ministers, businessmen, senior bureaucrats and intelligence chiefs.
An Algerian court jailed two former prime ministers for corruption, two days before polls. Ahmed Ouyahia, who served four times as prime minister under Bouteflika, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and Abdelmalek Sellal, who served twice, to 12 years.
Prosecutors accused the two former premiers of misappropriation of public funds, abuse of power and granting undue privileges, accusations denied by the two former officials.
*Writing by Gozde Bayar