By Christian Lowe
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria's authorities say a parliamentary election on Thursday is a stepping stone towards a more democratic state, but many people do not believe their promises, expect only marginal change and will stay away from polling stations.
The north African country is under pressure to come into line with neighboring states, where "Arab Spring" uprisings last year pushed out autocratic leaders and are bringing hopes of genuine democracy for the first time.
The vote is likely, for the first time in Algeria's history, to make Islamist parties the biggest bloc in the 462-seat national assembly, say diplomats and analysts. That will be in keeping with a trend in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere since the "Arab Spring."
However, there is little chance that will lead to radical change: the Islamists who are expected to dominate are moderate and loyal to the ruling establishment. Several of their leaders are already ministers in the government.
Few Algerians have any appetite for upheaval in a country still haunted by a civil war in the 1990s that killed an estimated 200,000 people. The government has instead offered what it is calling a managed transition to greater democracy.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said on Tuesday the election was a decisive stage in Algeria's program of reform, and appealed to people to turn out and vote.
"This election ... (is a) test of the country's credibility," he said in a speech in the eastern city of Setif.
The main issue at stake is how many people vote. There are no reliable opinion polls but anecdotal evidence suggests many Algerians will stay home.
"I do not expect a high turnout," Noureddine Benissad, head of the independent Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told Reuters on Tuesday. "Ordinary Algerians have lost interest in the election."
A low turnout will be awkward for the authorities, still dominated by the people who helped win independence from France 50 years ago. They want to shed their fusty, authoritarian image, and to do that they need popular legitimacy.
The election is likely to be the fairest and most transparent in two decades. More parties than ever before have been allowed to compete, and for the first time the European Union has been invited to monitor the vote.
The problem for the authorities is that many Algerians believe elections change nothing.
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.
A minority of Algerians are using the election as an opportunity to protest. Members of one group, the Movement of Independent Youth for Change, have been arrested for protesting against what they call an "electoral masquerade."
Yet there is no groundswell of anti-establishment feeling and little prospect of any big protests like those that brought down the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Oil revenues have brought better standards of living, and Algerians see last year's bloodshed in neighboring Libya as a lesson in the risks of a revolt.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, the authorities are likely to press on with a reform program.
The first step, many analysts predict, will be the appointment of a new prime minister. Ahmed Ouyahia, prime minister since 2008, has zealously implemented a program of economic nationalism that has chilled the business climate. A limited thaw is now likely.
The next phase is a review of the constitution, which will probably re-distribute some power from the president to parliament.
That will be followed by a race for the presidency. Bouteflika, who is 75 and often looks frail, is not expected to run for a fourth term. Speaking in the northeastern town of Setif on Tuesday of the need for a new generation of leaders, he said: "For us, it's over."
Outside a cafe in Oued Smar, a working class district of the capital, a small crowd gathered last week to see Islamist candidate Amar Ghoul on the campaign trail. The public works minister, he is tipped as a possible next prime minister.
Watching the crowd, Ayman, a computer science student from the candidate's own hometown Ain Defla, said he thought Ghoul was honest and hard-working. Asked if that meant he would vote, Ayman looked surprised. "No," he said.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Peter Graff)