By Christian Lowe
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria on Sunday launched the campaign for a parliamentary election that the ruling elite, in power for 50 years, hopes will soak up the pressure for change that has been building since the "Arab Spring" revolts in neighboring countries.
Oil and gas exporter Algeria is the only country in north Africa whose political system has remained essentially unchanged after the turmoil of last year when long-standing rulers were unseated in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Wary that the May 10 election could be the catalyst which brings upheaval spilling over from its neighbors, authorities have tried to counter the "Arab Spring" with their own, re-branded version that favors managed transition over revolution.
The official slogan of the election, repeated in commercials running on state television, is: "Algeria is our spring."
The country's rulers have heeded pressure for reform by easing restrictions on political parties and making the election process more transparent.
The next parliament, as a result, is likely to be more lively and diverse and have a large contingent of moderate Islamist parties, reflecting a trend across the region in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring."
But opponents say the authorities' moves towards reform are window dressing and that they will still not allow any genuine challenge to their hold on power.
WIND OF CHANGE
Workmen in the Algerian capital have put up dozens of rows of notice-boards which stretch along the city's streets to accommodate election posters.
The rows are so long because the authorities this year have allowed about 20 new parties to register, roughly doubling the number of candidates contesting the race compared with the previous parliamentary election five years ago.
The changes were sufficient to entice the Front of Socialist Forces, one of the biggest opposition parties, to take part. It has boycotted all national elections for the past 15 years.
Also on the ballot is the Front for Justice and Development, an Islamist group resolutely opposed to the government which until weeks ago was excluded from the political mainstream.
Meanwhile the two traditional parties of power are struggling. The bigger one, the National Liberation Front, is in turmoil, with rebels trying to unseat their party leader.
In other changes, commissions of judges and political parties have been given oversight over how the vote is run. International observers, including some from the European Union and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), have been invited.
All that amounts to a fresh gust of wind in a political scene that has for years been calm.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 75, said the country was ready to "launch a new stage in the implementation of democracy." The United States and European countries have applauded the reforms.
There is, though, little sign of enthusiasm about the election in Algeria, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of its independence from France.
In fact, the authorities seem concerned that apathy could lead to a low turnout. The state phone operator has been sending out text messages urging people to vote.
"There have been parliamentary elections before and what have the members of parliament done? Nothing," said Mohamed, a driver who said he was not planning to vote.
Even with the changes, parliament has few powers, many people suspect opposition parties of secretly colluding with the authorities, and the state still exercises tight control over the country's political space.
That control was in evidence on Saturday afternoon, on the square outside the central post office in the capital, Algiers.
An opposition group called the Movement of Independent Youth for Change scheduled a protest calling for an election boycott. Beforehand, the square teemed with uniformed police and plain-clothed officers.
As the protesters arrived at the square, alone or in pairs, police surrounded them and frog-marched them into waiting vans before they could even unfurl their banners. In total, about 20 people were detained.
The only protesters left in the square were two young women. They said they had not been arrested because police were squeamish about manhandling women.
"We know the Algerian system. They have been in power for 50 years," said one of the two, Sonia Zouaoui. "The system shows no will to have any change in Algeria."
Yet people like these, who are angry enough to take action, are a minority. While the protesters were being hauled away, people sitting at pavement cafes nearby carried on sipping their cups of espresso.
Most Algerians fear that radical political change could drag the country into violent turmoil. Memories of a conflict in the 1990s between Islamist militants and security forces, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, still hang over the country.
"The people who died have died, the people who left have left, and the ones that are left behind just want to live in peace," said Djamila, an office worker.
(Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)