Candidates begin presidential campaign in Algeria

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria's three-week presidential campaign kicked off Sunday with the incumbent president and his chief rival both promising to make this oil-rich nation more democratic by amending the constitution.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who will be running for his fourth five-year term, will be largely sitting out the campaign and relying on deputies to present his case after a stroke last year left the 77-year-old in a wheelchair with trouble speaking.

While six candidates are running for the powerful presidency in the April 17 elections, Bouteflika is the overwhelming favorite with the power of the state behind him. Many political parties are boycotting the contest, calling the election a farce.

The president's campaign manager, Abdelmalek Sellal, opened the campaign with a speech in the far south, near the border with Mali, reiterating a promise to make the nation more democratic by reforming the constitution.

Bouteflika first promised to reform the constitution in three years ago in the wake of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in other countries, but has not followed through. He removed term limits from the constitution in 2008 to allow himself to stay in power.

His chief rival, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, opened his campaign in Mascara, birthplace of the legendary Emir Abdelkader who fought the French invaders in the 19th century, also with a promise to create a more democratic state and a new constitution.

Benflis promised a new system where the parliament would have real power with an independent justice system. The coalition of Islamist and liberal parties boycotting the election has promised to hold a conference on Algeria's political transition ahead of the election.

There have been scattered protests against a fourth term for Bouteflika, most quickly crushed by security forces.

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