ALGIERS (Reuters) - Thousands of people took to the streets in Algiers and other cities on Thursday chanting “No vote! We want freedom!” as Algerian authorities held a presidential election that protesters view as a charade to keep the ruling elite in power.
No official results are expected on Thursday, but four of the five candidates - all former senior officials - said they had either won the election or would go through to a second-round run-off with none winning outright.
In the capital, police rushed the crowd with sticks to disperse the marchers, but fell back as more protesters arrived. One young man of about 25 shouted “We are free!” as a policeman tried to arrest him.
The military-backed government sees the vote as the only way to end 10 months of unrest that brought down veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. The demonstrators say no vote to replace him can be legitimate while the old guard still holds sway.
Officials said 33% of registered voters had cast ballots by 1600 GMT, two hours before polls closed. Protesters may dispute official figures.
In the centre of the capital Algiers some people were voting as police patrolled the streets on foot and in vehicles. A helicopter circled overhead.
“The country has entered a critical phase,” said Aziz Djibali, 56, who went to vote at a polling station near the prime minister’s office. “It’s time for Algerians to voice their opinions peacefully.”
But Djamel Faradji, among thousands protesting on the capital’s central Didouche Mourad boulevard, waved a flag that read: “I am Algerian and I will not vote against my country.”
The unemployed 27-year-old has been protesting for months. Like many demonstrators, he carried a flower to show that the protests are peaceful. Protests would continue despite the apparent defiance of the authorities, he said.
Others who did not join the protests also seemed ambivalent at best. “What is the benefit of voting?” asked Salim Bairi, a schoolteacher sitting in a central cafe.
The five presidential candidates are ex-prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, ex-culture minister Azzeddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a former member of the ruling FLN party’s central committee.
Tebboune’s campaign said he had won the vote outright, but the campaigns of Bengrina, Belaid and Mihoubi each said they had advanced as one of the two leading candidates to a second-round run-off.
Their estimates of vote share were based on information they had from their campaign observers monitoring vote-counting in various provinces.
The winner faces a dire economy, with falling oil revenue leading to a planned 9% fall in public spending next year.
Video posted online showed other demonstrations in Oran, Constantine and elsewhere. Protesters destroyed ballot boxes in the town of Bejaia and others took to the streets in the town of Haizer in the Kabylie region, chanting “No vote”, as polling stations stayed shut.
The area - once a bastion of the independence movement against French colonialism and the main arena of a 1990s civil war between the state and Islamist insurgents that killed 200,000 people - has been a centre of this year’s protests.
Aissa Ait Mohand, 22, an unemployed farmer’s son, said young people in the area regarded the election as a “trick” by the authorities to stay in power. “The government is corrupt. It has to be uprooted one way or another,” he said.
However, some people in Haizer supported the election, including former Islamist fighters who laid down their arms after the civil war and now back working with the authorities.
“We used to chant for an Islamic state without elections in the 1990s,” said one of them, who gave his name as Yahya. “We ended up with a civil war.”
Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker