Polls opened in Algeria on Thursday for a delayed presidential election that is opposed by a mass protest movement which wants the vote put off until the entire ruling elite steps down and the military quits politics.
The military, the strongest political player, sees the vote as the only way to restore order in Algeria, Africa’s largest country, a major natural gas supplier to Europe and home to 40 million people.
The five presidential candidates, approved by the state, are former prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, ex-culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a party leader.
All are familiar faces regarded by the protesters as part of a group that has held power since the country won independence from France in 1962.
In the wake of months of demonstrations, two former prime ministers and other senior political figures were jailed for corruption, in an apparent attempt to calm protests.
However, the capital Algiers was rocked by student protesters this week, chanting “we will not vote” and “we want freedom”.
After mass demonstrations began in February, protesters forced out former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. However, they don’t see their mission as complete.
They want the military to get out of politics, and for the old guard to step down from power.
With no sign of the protesters backing down and the military trying to use the election to restore order, the political system is paralysed at a time when urgent action is needed to revive the economy, hit by a fall in vital oil revenues.
The protesters believe the army will continue to wield power behind the scenes after consolidating its position in the hierarchy by purging once untouchable rivals.
Its chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, is now Algeria’s most powerful figure and sees the election of a new president as the best way to draw a line under a year of tumult and refresh the enduring political order.