By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Algeria's five presidential candidates on Sunday launched their campaigns for the Dec. 12 election, but some opposition protesters who say the vote will not be fair have hung sacks of garbage in places designated for political posters.
The "Hirak" opposition movement, which emerged this year from weekly mass protests demanding the entrenched ruling hierarchy quits power, says it will not support any election until more senior officials stand aside.
However, the men on the ballot all have close links with the establishment, and though some of them pushed for reforms, many still see them as part of an entrenched, unchanging elite.
"The election is completely rejected. We won't accept it. This is why it will be rejected as garbage," said Smain, a 23-year-old protester who withheld his family name for fear of reprisals.
Protesters flooded onto the streets of Algerian cities and towns in late February as it became clear that the veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek another term in power.
Though leaderless, the protesters succeeded in ousting Bouteflika in April, after the army turned against him, and the election originally scheduled for July was postponed.
The army, under chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, then emerged as the most powerful body in Algerian politics as the authorities detained numerous Bouteflika allies on corruption charges, jailing some of them.
However, the army wants a return to normality and the end to a period of constitutional limbo in which an interim president holds office until a new election.
It and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party that won independence from France in 1962 and has ruled ever since, have said they will not back any candidate in the vote and promised it will be free from interference.
However, Hirak's opposition to the election has set it up as a showdown over turnout - with the army and ruling establishment hoping for enough participation to ensure the legitimacy of a new president who can then move to end the protests.
"Nobody knows how the silent majority will behave on the day of the vote," political analyst Farid Ferrahi said.
"If you are not with Hirak, it doesn't mean you are with the regime," he added.
A Western diplomat in Algiers said the five candidates were "the softest version of Bouteflika's system".
One candidate, Ali Benflis, was prime minister under Bouteflika but later set up an opposition party and unsuccessfully ran against him in the 2014 election.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune, another former prime minister, was sacked by Bouteflika after only 90 days after clashing with one of the then president's allies.
Azzeddine Mihoubi was a culture minister under Bouteflika for years. Abdelaziz Belaid was a senior member of the FLN. Abdelkader Bengrina, a moderate Islamist, was tourism minister.
(Reporting By Lamine Chikhi, editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan)
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