May 4, 2017 / 6:59 AM / 4 months ago

Algerians vote for new parliament in ballot marked by apathy

Election workers count ballots at the end of voting for the parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria, May 4, 2017.Ramzi Boudina

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian voters looked set to hand the ruling FLN and its allies another five-year mandate in a parliamentary election on Thursday overshadowed by low oil prices and concerns over the health of the country's elderly president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Turnout is often low in parliament elections, which many Algerians say offer little change in a system dominated since independence in 1962 by the FLN. Scathing satirical videos on social media captured a mood of apathy among younger voters.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) and the pro-government National Rally for Democracy (RND) are widely expected to win against a divided opposition that includes leftists and Islamist party alliances. Smaller parties have boycotted the vote.

Making his first public appearance since late last year, Bouteflika voted from a wheelchair accompanied by his brothers and helped by his young nephew. The veteran leader shook hands with police and polling station staff, but did not speak.

Since a stroke in 2013 left him in hospital for months, he has mostly been seen in brief state television images greeting dignitaries. He was re-elected in 2014, but his health has often left questions over whether he would finish his term.

In power for nearly two decades, Bouteflika, 80, is widely praised for bringing the country out of a decade-long 1990s war with Islamist militants that killed 200,000 people and left many Algerians still wary of instability.

A veteran of the war against colonial France, he also oversaw a period of high oil prices that financed a massive welfare system from cheap housing and subsidised fuel and food programmes with roots in Algeria's post-independence socialism.

Government officials and ruling parties sought to rally voters out to the polls under the slogan "Let your voice be heard", mostly appealing to concerns over security and continuity under Bouteflika.

"You have to vote. You can never leave the ballot box empty," said Morad Saadi, 49, a cleaning products salesman voting at a school in central Algiers.

The interior ministry will announce the results of the vote on Friday morning.

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks at journalists after casting his ballot during the parliamentary election in Algiers, Algeria, May 4, 2017.Zohra Bensemra

The National Assembly has limited powers in the presidential system. A new constitution allows parliament a say in naming the prime minister but critics see it as a rubberstamp.

In the 2012 election, the FLN won 221 seats and the RND 70 seats by playing the stability and security card following the 2011 Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But turnout was just 43 percent.

At 1600 GMT, turnout was 33.53 percent, almost the same as five years ago at the same time, the interior ministry said.

GENERATION GAP

Slideshow (4 Images)

The FLN and RND benefit from association with Bouteflika and the government's public spending. They also gain from a low turnout as their core supporters among the elderly, public workers and the armed forces are the most likely to vote. In addition, the FLN have a strong party machinery in rural areas.

But more than half of Algeria's population is under 30, and many younger people say they feel little connection to the rhetoric of their country's leadership. Many young Algerians complain there are few opportunities for them.

During campaigning, social media reflected a lack of interest among younger voters. One video by local comedian DZ Joker pulled nearly 4 million views on YouTube with a take on Algeria's social problems entitled "Mansotich" a wordplay on "I will not jump" to refer to voting.

"For five years we don't see congressmen and we have no right to talk to them. Then they ask for our vote? Why should we, it's wrong," said Idir, a student in downtown Algiers.

The collapse of oil prices in mid-2014 has bought new challenges for an economy still dependent on energy revenues for 60 percent of its budget and reliant on imports because of feeble national production outside energy.

Falling earnings - state oil company Sonatrach revenues slumped to $27.5 billion in 2016 from $60 billion in 2014 - have forced the government to cut spending and start the sensitive task of reforming subsidies on cheap fuel.

Government officials say they want to reform the costly subsidy system but promise to maintain key benefits that have helped Algeria weather social tensions in the past, including during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Heavens

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