ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria was to announce the results on Friday of a parliamentary election which the ruling elite trumpeted as a gentler route to reform than the "Arab Spring" uprisings in neighbouring states.
Many observers predicted a strong showing for moderate Islamists - a result that would bring the energy exporter closer into line with the trend elsewhere in north Africa after last year's revolts.
But there were indications that despite the promises of reform, the historic ruling party, at the centre of the state since independence 50 years ago, would preserve its status as the biggest force in parliament.
Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, who is overseeing the election, was expected to announce the result of Thursday's vote at about 3:00 p.m. Forecasting the result is guesswork because there are no reliable opinion polls.
The "Arab Spring" barely touched Algeria but did prompt calls for the country to embrace more democracy and to renew an establishment that has run the energy exporter's affairs without interruption for half a century.
Algeria's rulers responded by promising people an "Algerian Spring" - a managed process of reform, with Thursday's election as the first step.
It was clear the election was not a clean break from the past. More than half of eligible voters abstained, with many saying they had no faith there would be real change, and some in the opposition alleged the vote had been rigged.
A government official, who spoke on condition on anonymity, told Reuters the results would show that the National Liberation Front, or FLN, had the biggest share of the vote. Effectively the ruling party, it was the movement which fought for independence from colonial rule.
The National Democratic Rally, or RND, a party headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, would be second and the moderate Islamist Green Alliance would be third, the official said.
Those placings - which could not be confirmed - were at odds with predictions by diplomats and analysts that Islamists would dominate the new parliament.
Even if the Islamists perform well, they are unlikely to bring about substantial change. Most of them are part of the establishment, several are already government ministers, and they have no radical agenda.
The election has been low-key and marked by widespread indifference from ordinary Algerians.
Many believe real power lies with an informal network commonly known by the French term "le pouvoir", or "the power", which is unelected, has been around for years and has its roots in the security forces. Officials deny this network exists.
Yacine Zaid, a human rights activist and opponent of the ruling elite, said he thought the election was "a masquerade, a circus ... The authorities have always dared to do what they want, to give whatever figures are in their head."
But there is little appetite for a revolt. Energy revenues have lifted living standards and people look with alarm at the bloodshed in neighbouring Libya after its insurrection.
In Algeria, a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still casts a shadow. The fighting started after the military-backed government annulled an election which hard-line Islamists were poised to win.
The election coincides with the 50th anniversary this year of independence from France. This will be an occasion for lavish celebrations, and also soul-searching about whether the country is on the right path.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)