* Apathy among voters is biggest challenge
* Low oil prices are strain on Algeria's economy
* Pro-government parties play up security concerns
By Patrick Markey
ALGIERS, May 1 In a sports arena festooned with
national flags, Algeria's ruling FLN party pumped up supporters
at one final weekend rally before Thursday's parliamentary
election with Liberation-era songs and screenings of old
speeches by its veteran leader, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Bouteflika, 80, has rarely been seen in public since a
stroke in 2013, but the message was clear enough: A vote for FLN
is a vote for the stability his supporters say he has delivered
to Algeria since it emerged from a 1990s civil war.
"FLN is the party of Bouteflika, and with him we have
security," said public sector worker Said, one of the
participants in the rally at the Coupole sports arena.
FLN, which has dominated Algeria since it won independence
from France in 1962, and the pro-government National Rally for
Democracy (RND) are widely expected to win the election against
a weak, divided opposition that includes leftists and Islamists.
But the challenge facing the FLN and RND is apathy among
voters who see the National Assembly as a rubber-stamp
legislature unwilling and unable to offer any real change.
In the last election in 2012, FLN won 221 seats and the RND
70 seats in the 462-seat People's National Assembly by playing
the stability card following the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia,
Egypt and Libya. But turnout was just 43 percent.
"I won't vote, I am sure not to vote. I know that none of
them will come up with a change or anything new," said Sofian,
30, a student in Algiers. "They make a lot of promises, but they
are there to make laws not to give out gifts."
With some 70 percent of Algerians under the age of 30,
Bouteflika - in power since 1999 - is the only leader many have
known, but he is rarely seen now in public.
In February he cancelled a visit by German Chancellor Angela
Merkel, reviving speculation about his health and a possible
transfer of power before the next presidential election due in
2019. No clear successor has emerged.
The parliamentary election comes as Algeria, an OPEC member
and major gas supplier to Europe, attempts sensitive reforms of
its vast social welfare system, price increases for subsidised
fuel and spending cuts following a steep decline in global oil
prices that have slashed its export earnings.
There are no reliable opinion polls in Algeria, but the FLN
and its allies, which have benefited from their association with
high state spending, are still hoping to consolidate their
Low turnout will likely help the FLN again. Its traditional
supporters - the elderly, the military, civil servants - are
more likely to vote, and the FLN local party network is also
strong in rural areas.
Under Algeria's new constitution, lawmakers will have a say
in appointing the prime minister, but their powers remain
limited in a country still haunted by memories of the 1990s war
with armed Islamist militants.
Government officials have been busy trying to drum up
enthusiasm among voters, urging imams to promote the election
and again linking the vote to security by pointing to potential
threats from militants or unstable neighbours such as Libya.
"There is no other way to let yourself be heard about your
rights and your country except to vote," said pro-government MPA
party candidate Djamila Khiar, canvassing on Algiers' main
boulevard that is flanked by white colonial-era buildings.
Some opposition parties have decided to boycott Thursday's
election, while Islamist parties have united in alliances.
In a working class district of Algiers, RND candidate Seddik
Chiheb acknowledged concerns over inflation and falling oil
prices and the need for reform as he courted voters at a cafe.
On the street outside pensioners greeted him, but the
customers at the cafe were mostly unmoved.
"What does it matter if he visits?" said one customer Musa.
"I haven't voted for about 12 years. It won't change anything."
(Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Gareth Jones)