The polls opened in Algeria’s presidential election on Thursday with the incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika widely expected to win after 15 years in power even though he has spoken rarely in public since suffering a stroke last year.
Late on Thursday, polls suggested Bouteflika is leading the vote with a 60 percent margin, Al Arabiya’s correspondant reported.
More than 260,000 police have been deployed to protect the 50,000 polling booths set up across Africa’s largest country, where 23 million Algerians are eligible to vote in a contest between six candidates after polling opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).
The ailing Bouteflika cast his ballot from a wheelchair at a polling station in Algiers.
A smiling Bouteflika arrived at Bachir el-Ibrahimi school in the el-Biar district and waved to reporters but made no statement.
Shown live on television, he was accompanied by two of his brothers, including Said who serves as special adviser to the president, and a young nephew.
The 77-year-old president, who rose to power in 1999, is the firm favorite. But with warnings of electoral fraud and opposition calls for a boycott, the focus will be on turnout before polling stations close at 1800 GMT.
With the dominant National Liberation Front (FLN) party, allied movements and unions behind him, Bouteflika is almost assured victory and another five years governing the North African OPEC state.
The results are expected at the earliest on Friday.
The outcome of the election is key for Western governments. Algeria is seen as a partner in Washington’s campaign against Islamist militancy in the Maghreb and as a stable supplier of around a fifth of Europe’s gas imports.
But concerns about Bouteflika’s health and how Algeria manages any transition have raised questions about stability in a region where neighboring Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are still struggling with turmoil after 2011 Arab Spring revolts.
“He has all the health he needs to carry out his duties,” said Abdelmalek Sellal, who resigned as prime minister to campaign for Bouteflika.
Loyalists portray Bouteflika as the man who helped stabilize Algeria after its 1990s war with militants. After the experience of that conflict, many Algerians are still wary of political upheaval, especially with an unstable region around them.
Infographic: Profile: Abdelaziz Bouteflika
But several opposition parties have boycotted the election, saying it is slanted in favor of Bouteflika and unlikely to bring reforms to a system little changed since independence from France in 1962.
“In case there is fraud I will not shut up,” opposition front-runner Ali Benflis told reporters. “This does not mean we will push for chaos, because we have opted for stability.”
Bouteflika, a veteran of Algeria’s war of independence, won the 2009 election with 90 percent of the vote.
Analysts say that since independence, Algerian politics have been mostly controlled by a cabal of FLN elites and army generals who, while competing behind the scenes for influence, see themselves as guarantors of stability.
Bouteflika’s allies have pushed to strengthen his position by reducing the influence of the powerful military intelligence chief, who for years played the role of kingmaker in Algerian politics.
Still, analysts say, political rivalries may resurface if Bouteflika’s health ebbs during a fourth term.
Algeria has built up huge foreign reserves from its energy sales - around $200 billion - and has spent heavily on housing and social programs to ward off Arab Spring-style protests. But social tensions over jobs, services and housing are common.
The country also needs reforms to overhaul an economy still hampered by restrictions on foreign investment and to attract more heavyweight oil players to help bolster stagnating oil and gas production.
[With AFP and Reuters]