By Christian Lowe and Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians voted on Thursday for a new parliament that officials say will bring democracy to a country left behind by the "Arab Spring" revolts, but many people showed their scepticism by abstaining.
Last year's uprisings in the region left Algeria under pressure to reform and renew the ageing establishment that has ruled without interruption since independence from France half a century ago.
The authorities in Algeria, which supplies about a fifth of Europe's imported natural gas, have responded by promising a steady transition towards more democracy, starting with Thursday's vote.
The election is likely to be the fairest and most transparent in 20 years, even though diplomats say it could be flawed. It is expected to give the biggest share of seats in parliament to moderate Islamists, mirroring the trend since the "Arab Spring" in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
However, many Algerians distrust the promises of reform. The election is shaping up to be less a contest between political parties and more a tug-of-war between the authorities and a large contingent who think voting is pointless.
Holding a plastic cup of coffee at a pavement cafe in the town of Zeralda, west of the capital, a man in his thirties said he had no plans to get up and go to a polling station.
"What's the use? Parliament has no power and the lawmakers are not competent enough to change the role of their institution," Karim Chiba said.
Others believed the election was an opportunity for reform that should be seized. University student Hakima Bahi was one of a handful of people at a polling station in Bou Ismail, a fishing village on the Mediterranean.
"I voted because our country needs change, and we should give the political parties a chance to help improve things," she said.
LITTLE APPETITE FOR REVOLT
Many Algerians see elections as futile because real power, they say, lies with an informal network which is commonly known by the French term "le pouvoir," or "the power," and has its roots in the security forces.
Officials deny this and say the country is run by democratically elected officials.
Diplomats predict as few as 35 percent of those who are eligible will vote. That would be embarrassing for the authorities. They had hoped a big turnout would give them fresh legitimacy in a year when lavish celebrations are planned for the 50th anniversary of independence.
Nevertheless, there is little appetite in Algeria for a revolt. Energy revenues have lifted living standards, and people look with alarm at the bloodshed in neighboring Libya after its insurrection.
In Algeria, a conflict in the 1990s between security forces and Islamist insurgents, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still casts a shadow. The fighting started after the military-backed government annulled an election which Islamists were poised to win.
The Islamists set to dominate the 462-seat parliament after Thursday's election are a different proposition.
The strongest Islamist bloc, the Green Alliance, are moderates with close ties to the establishment. Several of their leaders are already government ministers. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could appoint one of them as the next prime minister.
The Islamists are on course to displace two secularist parties, also loyal to the establishment, that dominate the outgoing parliament.
There are no exit polls, and first results are not expected until they are unveiled by the Interior Ministry on Friday.
"There is a very strong chance that the Green Algeria alliance will win a plurality of seats," said Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting.
"Islamist leadership in the parliament, however, is likely to avoid the more difficult issues of political reform, foreign affairs and broader economic policy," he said.
(Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)