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Ailing Bouteflika poised to clinch fourth term.

Summary: Ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika was poised to clinch a fourth presidential term despite chronic health problems after Algerians voted Thursday in an election that saw at least 70 people wounded in protests.

ALGIERS: Ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika was poised to clinch a fourth presidential term despite chronic health problems after Algerians voted Thursday in an election that saw at least 70 people wounded in protests.

Voting ended by 1900 GMT at polling booths across the vast North Africa country, but with the count now under way, the 77-year-old president who has been in power since 1999 remains the firm favorite of the six candidates.

In his first public appearance in two years, a smiling Bouteflika arrived at a voting center in Algiers mid-morning in a wheelchair, waving but making no comment to reporters covering an election tainted by fraud warnings and boycott calls.

All eyes are on the turnout and any signs of vote rigging, with officials saying just over 37 percent of the electorate had voted by 1700 GMT and a third of the polling stations staying open an extra hour.

The official result is due Friday.

Sporadic violence marred the election process, especially in the Kabylie, a restive, mostly Berber region east of Algiers.

Clashes at three places in Bouira province, between police and youths seeking to disrupt the vote, wounded at least 70 people, local sources said, while small protests by activists shouting anti-regime slogans were quickly snuffed out in the capital.

In the Kabylie village of Raffour, anti-regime sentiment was palpable, with masked youths armed with slings and chanting hostile slogans confronting police who fired tear gas.

For Algeria's independent newspapers, the election outcome is a foregone conclusion.

"It's just a matter of the curtain coming down this evening on a bad taste political drama," commented El Watan, saying that the election lacked credibility.

Youth activists and opposition parties had urged Algerians to snub the election, as many question whether Bouteflika is fit to rule.

Bouteflika has been seen only rarely on television in recent months, looking frail and barely audible, after suffering a mini-stroke last year which confined him to hospital for three months.

When he last appeared in public, in the runup to a May 2012 parliamentary election, Bouteflika addressed Algeria's youth to declare: "My generation has served its time."

His intention to seek re-election, announced in February, sparked derision and at times scathing criticism in the independent media.

However, Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians, especially for helping to end the devastating civil war of the 1990s, in which up to 200,000 people were killed.

"We are voting for peace, it's all we want," said Khadija, a widow in her 50s, at a polling station in a village in the Sidi Moussa district south of Algiers.

Her husband was killed in August 1997 along with nearly 100 others in Sidi Moussa in an attack blamed on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which staged a wave of massacres in its campaign against the government, at times wiping out entire villages.

But there is also anger and frustration among many Algerians for whom the likely prospect of another five-year term for an ageing president disabled by a stroke is unacceptable.

Youth protest group Barakat (Enough) was founded just two months ago specifically to challenge Bouteflika's re-election bid.

With Barakat and a coalition of opposition parties, both Islamist and secular, urging voters to shun the ballot, participation is a key issue.

A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable estimated voter turnout in the last presidential election in 2009 at between 25 percent and 30 percent, compared with the official figure of 74.11 percent.

Bouteflika's main rival, former premier Ali Benflis who ran against him in 2004 but lost heavily, charged that the vote 10 years ago was massively rigged and predicted fraud would be his "main adversary" Thursday.

After voting in the Hydra district of the capital, Benflis said he had already been alerted to acts of fraud, having earlier warned that he would "not keep quiet" if the election is stolen.

An 82-year-old supporter, Khadija, questioned the purpose of voting, expressing deep mistrust of Algeria's electoral process.

"If I had my voting card I would give my vote to Ali Benflis. But with this fraud ... maybe my vote would go to Bouteflika. How can I know?"

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6ALGE
Date:Apr 18, 2014
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