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    Algerian Opposition Groups Boycotting Presidential Vote

    Algerians go to the polls on Thursday to cast their ballots in a presidential election. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is running for re-election in a vote that some opposition parties are boycotting.

    President Bouteflika has been the leading candidate since the constitution was changed to allow him to stand for a third consecutive five-year term.

    While officially running as an independent, he has been endorsed by Algeria's three largest political parties, which together control more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament.

    First elected in 1999, President Bouteflika has focused mainly on national security concerns and the threat of Islamic extremism.  He offered widespread pardons to repentant terrorists and security forces, calling himself the "architect of national reconciliation".

    But with the decline in the price of oil and natural gas, which accounts for about one-third of Algeria's gross domestic product, Mr. Bouteflika increasingly has turned to broader social issues.  In this year's campaign, he is promising to raise Algeria's minimum wage, create new jobs, build more affordable housing and write off debts owed by farmers.

    Algerian driver Abdulkadir Benhudia says the economy is the biggest issue for voters.

    Benhudia says life is so expensive that many men in their 30s and 40s have no homes, no jobs and no money to get married.  He says he hopes that politicians will improve the situation.  But he wonders how much will really change if the same leaders are re-elected.

    Mr. Bouteflika is facing five challengers, including the first Algerian woman to run for president, Louisa Hanoune.  She is the secretary general of the Algerian Workers' Party and is campaigning for a more inclusive, secular government.

    University student Shema Arbia says women are ignored in Algeria.

    Arbia says she hopes the election will improve conditions for young women who she says have no value in society.  She says self-interested politicians have done nothing to help young people, so many younger voters see the election as meaningless.

    Two of Algeria's leading opposition parties are boycotting the ballot, including the Movement for Culture and Democracy, which is flying a black flag in front of its party headquarters instead of the Algerian flag.  Party President Said Sadi says they are mourning democracy.

    Al-Qaida's North Africa wing is also urging Algerians to stay away from the polls.  Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb began as an insurrection against Algeria's secular military rulers after the government canceled the second round of parliamentary elections in 1992, when it appeared that a coalition of Islamist groups might take power.

    The group claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Algeria last year and says it is holding several foreign hostages, including a United Nations special representative who was kidnapped in Niger.

    Because of security concerns surrounding this week's vote, there have been no major rallies or parades.  All campaigning has been indoors in private homes or community and sports centers.

    More than 20,000,000 Algerians are registered to vote.  The Arab League has 87 electoral observers on hand.

    Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who is leading 100 observers from the African Union, says he is impressed by the openness of the electoral process so far and that he is watching to see how freely the nation's media will be allowed to report results.

    While polls in most of Algeria do not open until Thursday morning, desert nomads in southern Algeria began voting on Saturday.  So too did hundreds of thousands of expatriates, the vast majority of whom live in France where they cast their ballots at more than 100 polling stations across the country.

    Results are expected on Friday.  Most election observers expect President Bouteflika to win far more than the 50 percent of the vote required to avoid a second round of balloting.


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