Algerians Are Choosing a New President in Contentious Poll

Five candidates have their eyes on becoming the next president of Algeria — without a leader since April — as voting began in Thursday’s contentious election boycotted by a massive pro-democracy movement.

The powerful army chief and his cohorts in the interim government have promised the voting will chart a new era for the gas-rich North African nation that is a strategic partner of the West in countering extremist violence. Those opposed to the voting fear the results will replicate a corrupt, anti-democratic system they are trying to level.

Tension was palpable on the eve of the vote as protesters in at least 10 towns denounced the elections. In Bouira, east of Algiers, the capital, security forces used tear gas to push back protesters who had invaded a voting station in a high school, according to the online TSA news agency, citing witnesses. Several thousand people demonstrated in Algiers.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and are to close at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT). Results were not likely until Friday, to be announced by a newly created National Independent Electoral Authority overseeing the voting. The body was among the nods of authorities to protesters, like the decision for soldiers to vote in civilian clothes at regular polling stations, rather than in barracks.

The five candidates, two of them former prime ministers, Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, endured insults and protests during the 22-day campaign. All five contenders have links to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to resign in April after 20 years in office under pressure from weekly street protests that began in February, with an assist from army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah.

The turnout rate should be a critical indication of whether the contender elected has popular legitimacy. There was no firm indication which of the five had the upper hand ahead of the vote. Opinion polls for elections are not permitted.

Tebboune, 74, was until recently seen as the favorite due to his reportedly close ties to Gaid Salah. However, a 60-year-old former culture minister, Azzedine Mihoubi, a writer and poet, has been touted in the media. Mihoubi has deep ties to the fallen Bouteflika regime. He took over leadership of the National Democratic Rally party, which governed in alliance with the FLN, the sole party for nearly three decades, until 1989, and now in tatters.

Benflis, 75, was making his third attempt at the presidency. A lawyer and former justice minister, he was Bouteflika’s top aide before falling out when he ran against him in 2004. He started his own party.

The other candidates are Abdelaziz Belaid, 56, a former figure in the FLN who started his own party, and Abdelkader Bengrini, 57, a one-time tourism minister and former member of the moderate Islamist party, Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP). He then started his own Islamist party el Bina, which like the MSP, backed Bouteflika.

Gaid Salah, who has emerged as the authority figure in the political vacuum, setting the date for the elections, has maintained that the voting is the shortest and surest way to raise Algeria out of its paralyzing political crisis and give birth to a new era. He was the force behind an anti-corruption campaign that has seen top figures jailed and convicted, including Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother and chief counselor, sentenced to 15 years in prison in September for “plotting against the state.”

Gaid Salah refers to Bouteflika’s entourage as “the gang,” as do pro-democracy protesters who include Gaid Salah among them.

Police Arrest Protesters Amid Curfew in India’s Northeast

Police arrested dozens of people and enforced curfew Thursday in several districts in India’s northeastern Assam state where thousands protested legislation granting citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from neighboring countries.

Groups of protesters defied the curfew in Gauhati, the state capital, on Thursday morning and burned tires before police dispersed them.

Soldiers drove and marched though the streets to reinforce police in violence-hit districts, which included Gauhati and Dibrugarh, said state police chief Bhaskar Mahanta.

The protesters in Assam oppose the legislation out of concern that migrants will move to the border region and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people. The legislation was passed by Parliament on Wednesda and now needs to be signed by the country’s ceremonial president, a formality, before becoming law.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace and in a tweet said: “I want to assure them — no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.”

The Press Trust of India news agency said the protesters uprooted telephone poles, burned several buses and other vehicles and also attacked homes of officials from the governing Hindu nationalist party and the regional group Assam Gana Parishad.

Police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in 10 out of the state’s 33 districts.

While those protesting in Assam are opposed to the bill because of worries it will allow immigrants, no matter their faith, to live in their region, others are opposed to the bill because they see it as discriminatory for not applying to Muslims.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh because of religious persecution before 2015. It does not, however, extend to Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar.

Home Minister Amit Shah said it was not anti-Muslim because it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities.

Amnesty India said the legislation legitimized discrimination on the basis of religion and stood in clear violation of the India’s constitution and international human rights law.

“Welcoming asylum seekers is a positive step, but in a secular country like India, slamming the door on persecuted Muslims and other communities merely for their faith reeks of fear-mongering and bigotry,” the rights group said in a statement.

Several opposition lawmakers who debated the bill in Parliament said it would be challenged in court.

“Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India,” said Sonia Gandhi of the main opposition Congress party. “The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism.”

Its passage follows a contentious citizenship registry exercise in Assam intended to identify legal residents and weed out those in the country illegally. Shah has pledged to roll it out nationwide, promising to rid India of “infiltrators.”

Nearly 2 million people in Assam were excluded from the list — about half Hindus and the other half Muslims — and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be rendered stateless.

India is constructing a detention center for some of the tens of thousands the courts are expected to ultimately determine came to the country illegally.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill could provide protection and a fast track to naturalization for many of the Hindus left off Assam’s citizenship list.