* Demonstrators stage show of strength before election
* Army wants to restore normality after months of protests (Adds quotes from people watching debate)
By Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets on Friday, making a show of strength of their last weekly protest before a presidential election that they have rejected as meaningless.
The protesters have been demonstrating twice a week since February to demand that the shadowy ruling elite that has controlled Algeria since independence in 1962 quits power.
On Friday in central Algiers they chanted "We will not vote" and held aloft banners reading "The people are fed up."
The army, the major force within the Algerian state, sees the Dec. 12 election of a new president as the only way to restore normality after nine months of demonstrations that in April ousted the veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The leaderless opposition movement casts the election as pointless if the ruling hierarchy, including the army, continues to wield power, and wants it put off until more top officials step aside and the military quits politics.
"We will stick to our position. We don't care about next Thursday. We need change," said post office employee Aissa Baha'i, 32.
As the last protesters were still leaving, state television began broadcasting a debate between the five men running for president, all of whom are former senior officials.
Some people were watching in Algiers cafes, though others were showing a soccer match, including some protesters who rejected it as political theatre.
"These candidates are part of the same system. They don't have new ideas. It's a shame," said Mohamed Tabi, a taxi driver.
The first question was about Algeria's political system, and candidates tried to mollify the opposition.
One candidate, Abdelaziz Belaid, said he would hold a referendum to change the constitution and another, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, said he would grant all the freedoms sought by the protesters.
The debate is the first in an Algerian election, and some people watching in a nearby restaurant said they were interested and were planning to vote.
Farid Hamiti, a state bank employee, said the election was "the only way to stop the situation from getting worse".
Though the protest movement, which during the spring was regularly bringing hundreds of thousands of people out, has so far been peaceful, there have been signs of growing tensions as the election nears.
Earlier this year the authorities detained dozens of protesters for waving flags with Berber symbols, as they began to put more pressure on the marches. Many were later sentenced to year-long prison terms for undermining national unity.
Late on Thursday, the security services accused a Berber separatist movement of planning to disrupt the election by using agents provocateurs among the protesters to incite police violence, saying a student in the banned group had confessed.
The government has also arrested several opposition figures and journalists, charging some with attacking army morale.
On Friday state media reported that thousands of people had joined marches in towns in western and eastern provinces in support of next week's vote.
In recent weeks, opposition protesters have marched more frequently and demonstrated against candidates by hanging bags of garbage in public spaces reserved for electioneering.
Meanwhile, the government has sought to appease protester anger over corruption, arresting dozens of senior officials and former officials and businessmen, many of them associated with Bouteflika, and sentencing some to long prison terms. (Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by William Maclean, Grant McCool and Alex Richardson)
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