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Algiers - Sceptical Algerians abstained in large numbers from a parliamentary election on Thursday which the country's ruling elite hoped would help them claw back credibility after Arab Spring revolts left them looking out of touch.
Last year's upheavals in the region, though they largely passed Algeria by, have created pressure for reform and a renewal of the ageing establishment that has ruled without interruption since independence from France half a century ago.
The authorities in Algeria have responded by promising an “Algerian Spring” - a managed process of reform they offer as a counterpoint to the upheavals elsewhere.
But many Algerians see elections as futile because real power, they say, lies with an informal network which is commonly known by the French term “le pouvoir”, or “the power”, and has its roots in the security forces. Officials say the country is ruled by democratically elected officials.
Reuters reporters in Algiers, in fishing villages on the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and in the Kabylie mountains to the east, said only a trickle of people were going into polling stations, though numbers were expected to pick up later.
The election is likely to give the biggest share of seats in parliament for the first time in Algeria's history to moderate Islamists, mirroring the trend in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
“The young people will make an Algerian Spring in this election,” said Bouguera Soltani, whose mildly Islamist “Green Alliance” coalition is tipped to become the dominant force in the new parliament.
“The 2012 parliament is different from the previous ones because it will have new prerogatives. People who boycott (the vote) will regret it,” he said as he voted near his home in Staoueli, a town west of the capital.
Many Algerians, however, believe the vote will change little because parliament has only limited powers and even the opposition parties have ties to the establishment.
Holding a plastic cup of coffee at a pavement cafe in the town of Zeralda, west of the capital, a man in his thirties said he had no plans to get up and go to a polling station.
“What's the use? Parliament has no power,” Karim Chiba said.
In Tizi-Ouzou, a town about 100 km (60 miles) east of Algiers, polling stations were almost empty on Thursday morning.
Asked about the election, Salim, a 28-year-old who runs a newsstand in Tizi-Ouzou, joked: “What are you talking about? Vote? What vote?”
Thursday was declared a public holiday to encourage voting. Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said on state television that nationwide turnout at midday was 15.5 percent. “People are happy,” he said. “We hope it will be a celebration.”
A turnout of about 35 percent, the record low figure at the last parliamentary vote in 2007, would be embarassing for the authorities.
They had hoped a big turnout would give them fresh legitimacy in a year when Algeria marks the 50th anniversary of independence. That will be an occasion for lavish celebrations but also for soul-searching on whether the country is on the right path.
Yet there is little appetite for a revolt. Energy revenues in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe's imported natural gas, have lifted living standards, and people look with alarm at the bloodshed in neighbouring Libya after its insurrection.
In Algeria, a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still casts a shadow. The fighting started after the military-backed government annulled an election which hardline Islamists were poised to win.
The Islamists in Thursday's vote are a very different proposition. They reject radical change. Some of their leaders are already ministers in the government.
Many of them voted in Staoueli on Thursday because it is the nearest polling station to their homes in Club des Pins, a exclusive state-owned compound on the Mediterranean shore reserved for ministers and members of parliament.
There are no exit polls, and first results are not expected until they are unveiled by the Interior Ministry on Friday.
“There is a very strong chance that the Green Algeria alliance will win a plurality of seats,” said Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting.
“Islamist leadership in the parliament, however, is likely to avoid the more difficult issues of political reform, foreign affairs and broader economic policy,” he said. - Reuters