When Algerian polls opened late last week, few voters turned up at the polling stations visited by this reporter.
They were supposed to cast a ballot for the presidency in this North African country wracked by the legacy of two wars in the last half-century.
At the Asharea school in Algiers, plastic flags strung above the courtyard flapped in the chilly, drizzly breeze. The walls were plastered with posters reminding people that as Algerians it was their duty to cast a vote. But of the few people milling around the puddle-strewn schoolyard, most were election workers occasionally wondering aloud when their boss would pass out their boxed lunches.
Yet when the official results came out Friday, the Interior Ministry said 75 percent of voters had turned out to elect incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika by a whopping 90 percent. His five opponents cried foul, and four said Saturday they planned to file complaints, reported the Associated Press (AP).
Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said the alleged ballot stuffing would have had a "negligible" impact on the results, and said no precise incidents had been reported to him. But runner-up Louisa Hanoun, saying she had voting records from hundreds of polling stations, said her staff "filed many appeals by fax to the Interior Ministry throughout election day," according to AP.
Whether such allegations are true remains to be seen, but most people seemed resigned to a Bouteflika win even before the disputed results came in.
Ahlam Laroussi is a young woman who worked the polls at Asha'rea as a representative of the Worker's Party, led by Ms. Hanoun – the Arab world's first female presidential candidate. She hoped Hanoun would win, but was certain she would not.
"I wish Hanoun would win, but here we have Bouteflika," she said with a sad smile. "Of course he will win."
'What people want most is security'
Mr. Bouteflika has held office for 10 years – the maximum allowed by the Constitution until November 2008, when his allies in parliament amended it to do away with term limits, setting in motion a presidential race that many, such as Ms. Laroussi, said was over before it began.
But like many Algerians, Laroussi was also quick to point out how much better off the country is today than before Bouteflika came to power in 1999.
Then Algeria was in the throes of decade-long civil war that ultimately killed as many as 200,000 people, and the country still winces at the memory of a conflict that is gone but far from forgotten.
"The thing that people want the most is security, and he gave us that, thank God," she said. "He brought us time to live our lives, and peace from terrorism."
Upstairs at Asha'rea, several classrooms were set aside for the use of women voters, but they, too, were mostly empty.
Every so often, one would arrive and be given six slips of paper with each candidate's name and face printed on them. She carried them into a booth, where she slipped her preferred candidate into an envelope that went inside the ballot box, and tossed the other five into the trash.
Once the burly man overseeing voting operations was out of earshot, the six women staffing the upstairs rooms rushed to dig through the trash to take Hanoun ballots as souvenirs.
At midday, it was hard to find any. Yet Hanoun garnered only 4.22 percent of the vote – second place, according to the official results.
Amid vibrant flower garden, wilting hope
Sami, a young man with a government job who would not give his last name, said he didn't think people would vote, even though he had given up part of his weekend to work the polls.
"If things were going to change around here it would have happened a long time ago," he said. "I don't know if it's too late to change anything or not, but I don't think anyone will go vote."
Across town in a small shantytown perched on a hillside, Mohamed Tiarti is one resident who fulfills Sami's prediction.
His neighborhood doesn't really have a name, but local residents call it Mouline, after the name of the hill. It's a place where rural migrants settled when they came to Algiers looking for work, or to flee wartime violence in the countryside, where several civilian massacres in the late '90s wiped whole villages off the map.
Mr. Tiarti has been living here for 18 years, since he moved from the mountain town of Relizane to take a job at a nearby construction site. Now he tends the garden at the housing project down the hill for about $150 a month.
Since he came to Mouline, he says bureaucrats and politicians have made a lot of promises to its more than 100 families. Years ago someone even came and put his name on a list so that he, his wife, and their three teenage children could be given a real house. It never happened.
"I wish that politics made a difference in my life and could help me, but that's just a hope," he said, standing amid the bright whites, oranges, purples, and pinks of the flower garden near his home. "It's not real."