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Algeria holds parliamentary elections hailed by Bouteflika as ‘dawn of new era’

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Algeria held its first parliamentary elections on Thursday since the Arab Spring upheavals, with the ruling authorities hoping to deflect pressure for change and many skeptical people planning to abstain.

Last year’s revolts in the region left Algeria largely untouched, but it is now under pressure to reform and renew the ageing establishment that has ruled the country without interruption since independence from France half a century ago.

The authorities in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe’s imported natural gas, have responded by promising a steady transition towards more democracy, starting with Thursday’s vote.

The vote will see 44 parties – 21 of them newly created – battle for seats in an enlarged parliament of 462 lawmakers, in what President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika has hailed as “the dawn of a new era.”

But ever deeper voter disaffection ahead of an election that failed to produce new faces could prompt a huge chunk of the 21-million electorate to shun polling stations.

“I’m addressing the young people who must take over the baton because my generation has had its time,” he said. “The country is in your hands. Take care of it,” Bouteflika, 75, said on Tuesday.

However, many Algerians distrust the promises of reform. The election is shaping up to be less a contest between political parties and more a tug-of-war between the authorities and a large contingent who think voting is pointless.

“No one deserves my vote. I have been living in a two-room apartment with my five children for years. This election is no different from previous ones. I’m sure it will change nothing,” said Abdelghani, a 46-year-old worker at a coffee shop.

Others were less vehement, but still not planning to vote. “It’s a day off. I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to go on a trip with my children,” said Kader, a 37-year-old bank employee.

Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN), once the only party, has been steadily losing ground since pluralism was introduced in 1989. While it could yet win the most votes, it is expected to seek alliances to govern.

“I don’t think any party can approach a majority alone,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said recently.

The FLN, which has 136 seats in the outgoing assembly, currently sits in a coalition with the National Rally for Democracy of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and the Movement of Society for Peace, the main legal Islamist party.

The MSP hopes it can cash in on the so-called “Green wave” that swept Islamists to the helm in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts.

But Algeria is different in several ways.

One is that the Islamists are already in power: the MSP was part of a presidential alliance until February and still holds four government posts.

Another is that many Algerians believe the country has already had its own Arab Spring when the one-party system ended and Islamists won the first round of the ensuing 1991 election.

The army interrupted the vote, sparking a brutal decade-long civil war that left around 200,000 people dead and scars that are still raw.

Islamist parties have struggled to draw crowds during the campaign, as have other movements. The threat of an even lower turnout than the 35 percent recorded in 2007 looms large.

The campaign has focused on unemployment, which officially stands at 10 percent but is believed to be almost twice as high, on housing issues and on the soaring cost of living.

Algeria’s youth, which accounts for close to three quarters of the 37 million inhabitants, looks set to abstain en masse amid fears over the vote’s credibility and deep distrust of the political class.

Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and people cannot understand that a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182 billion does not do more to improve their lives.

The regime has tried to assuage fears of fraud by inviting some 500 foreign election observers –including from the European Union.

But Algeria is Africa’s largest country, four times the size of France, and few voters seem convinced.