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Algeria s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was expected to win a fourth term despite his poor health when official results are announced Friday after a vote marred by low turnout and allegations of massive fraud.

The results are to be unveiled in the afternoon by Interior Minister Tayib Belaiz, but Bouteflika s supporters were certain of victory and celebrated in the streets of the capital Algiers after polls closed Thursday.

Bouteflika s main rival, former premier Ali Benflis, said he rejected the result and alleged massive fraud and serious irregularities across the country on polling day.

Even if Bouteflika s success is confirmed, the win will be overshadowed by the fact that turnout dropped sharply from the previous election in 2009, after a coalition of activists and opposition parties urged voters to shun the ballot.

Figures showed 51.7 percent of Algerians had voted this time compared to an official, but disputed, figure of 74 percent in 2009, with only 37 percent of voters taking part in the capital.

The lowest turnout was recorded in the Kabylie, a restive, mostly Berber region east of Algiers, where around one in four people cast a vote.

Some 70 people were hurt in clashes between police and youths seeking to disrupt the vote when polls opened in the Kabylie.

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

More than 260,000 police officers, some armed with Kalashnikovs, had been deployed to maintain security during the election in Africa s largest country, which the 77-year-old president has ruled since 1999.

- Security or fear-mongering? -

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

For the Algerian press, the election outcome was certain, with only the margin of victory in doubt.

A fourth Bouteflika mandate, ran the headline of El Khabar, with a picture of the president sitting in his wheelchair being pushed by a doctor.

The president 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.

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.

The Algerians have voted for security and stability, announced Ach-Chouroq, alluding to the main theme of Bouteflika s campaign.

But leading daily El Watan lamented blackmail through fear, saying Thursday s vote would be remembered as the election of the absurd.

Ahmed Ouyahia, a former prime minister now heading the president s office, had said that a contested election result could reopen the gates of hell, with army chief Ahmed Gaid-Salah also warning against possible disturbances.

- Legitimacy challenged -

Many Algerians have expressed anger over the prospect of another five-year term for their ailing president.

Youth protest group Barakat (Enough) was founded just two months ago specifically to challenge Bouteflika s re-election bid, and organised sporadic demonstrations in the run-up to the poll, most of which were swiftly suppressed.

Barakat and a coalition of five opposition parties, both Islamist and secular, called on Algerians to boycott an election they said was a sham .

The final turnout of 51.7 percent was the lowest of all presidential elections of the past 20 years, and sharply down from the official figure of 74.11 percent given in 2009. A leaked US diplomatic cable estimated the 2009 turnout at 30 percent.

Analysts warn that the weak participation could undermine the president, who will have to grapple with persistent social problems including high youth unemployment and poor living conditions, despite Algeria s vast oil and gas riches.

Bouteflika s political capital has traditionally relied on the legitimacy granted by strong turnout in elections and a wide margin of victory, said Stratfor, a US-based global think-tank.

Lower-than-expected turnout could weaken Bouteflika and his administration s mandate more than isolated protests could, impeding his ability to push through difficult, though necessary, political and economic reforms.


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