Regime stalwart elected Algeria president, angering protesters

Regime stalwart elected Algeria president, angering protesters
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Algiers: A former ally of Algeria's deposed leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president of the protest-wracked country in a widely boycotted vote, sparking another outpouring of anger on the streets Friday.

Huge crowds massed once again in Algiers vowing to keep up their campaign for the total dismantling of the political establishment, following ex-prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune's victory in Thursday's poll.

"The vote is rigged. Your elections are of no concern to us and your president will not govern us," demonstrators chanted after polls marred by unrest and a low turnout.

"Tebboune is worse than Bouteflika. He's known for being one of the thieves," said Meriem, a 31-year-old civil servant.

"We did not vote and we will not back down." But on Friday, Tebboune struck a conciliatory tone towards the protest movement.

"I extend my hand to the Hirak for a dialogue to build a new Algeria," he said at his first news conference following the poll.

The 74-year-old former prime minister took just over 58 percent of the vote, trouncing his four fellow contenders without the need for a runoff, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi said.

All five candidates served under the two-decade rule of Bouteflika, 82, who resigned in the face of mass demonstrations in April.

The deeply unpopular election had been championed by the army as a way of restoring stability after almost 10 months of street protests.

The candidates -- who included another former prime minister, Ali Benflis, 75, and an ex-minister, Azzedine Mihoubi -- were widely rejected by protesters as "children of the regime".

A record six in 10 Algerians abstained in the vote, Charfi said -- the lowest turnout for a multi-party election since independence from France in 1962.

Tens of thousands rallied on election day in central Algiers, where police with water cannon and helicopters tried to disperse them.

On Friday, protesters took to the streets again in response to calls on social media under the slogan "Tebboune is not my president".

Said, a 32 year-old engineer from Bouira, said he had made the 100-kilometre (60 mile) journey to the capital to take part in the demonstrations.

"I spent the night here so I could demonstrate again... and say we don't recognise their election or their president." Pensioner Farida mocked the official figures after the vote.

"Someone added yeast to them to get them to rise," she said.

Protests in Algiers dispersed calmly in the late afternoon.

In the mountain region of Kabylie -- home to much of the country's Berber minority and historically opposed to the central government -- protesters ransacked polling stations and clashed with police on election day, residents said.

The US on Friday congratulated the president-elect but called on Algeria to respect the rights of protesters.

"The Algerian people have voiced their aspirations not just at the ballot box but in the streets... The United States supports the right of Algerians to peacefully express their views," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Young protesters in the capital slammed those casting their ballots as "traitors of the nation".

But some voters said they had turned out because after nearly a year of turmoil it was time for a return to stability.

Tebboune faces a mammoth task to be accepted by the electorate in the North African country, where many citizens see the government as inept, corrupt and unable to manage the flagging economy.

Addressing reporters on Friday, he vowed to battle corruption and to form a national conference charged with amending the constitution.

"There will be a new electoral law and we will definitively separate money from politics," he said.

Tebboune served in Bouteflika's cabinet from 1999 to 2002, returning in 2012 and briefly serving as prime minister in 2017.

But Bouteflika sacked him after just three months for criticising top regime figures, many of whom are now in jail on corruption charges.

Tebboune is seen as close to army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has emerged as Algeria's strongman since Bouteflika stepped down.

Since the start of the campaign, Tebboune has sought to distance himself from Bouteflika.

The "Hirak" street movement kicked off when Bouteflika announced in February that he would seek a fifth term in office.

Protesters have stayed on the streets ever since, demanding the total dismantling of the system that has ruled Algeria since independence.

They have also vented their anger at Gaid Salah.

"This system is worn out," said Maghreb expert Karima Direche, warning that protesters would continue pressing for change.

"We are witnessing the death of the system. It will take as long as it takes," she said.