By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Three Algerian opposition parties have called for a boycott of elections in April after the government announced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for a fourth term to extend his 15 years in power.
Bouteflika, the independence veteran and Washington ally, has rarely appeared in public since a stroke sent him to a Paris hospital last year, but the government said the 76-year-old will run again in the April 17 vote.
Almost assured of re-election, Bouteflika has support of the powerful ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party and is seen by loyalists as the man who delivered them peace and stability after a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.
The opposition RCD movement, Islamist MSP party and Ennahda party - who pose no real challenge to the FLN and its party machinery - called for a boycott of a vote they say will not be fair with Bouteflika running.
"Candidates should retire from this electoral masquerade," they said in a statement. "There are not the conditions for a free and transparent scrutiny."
With questions over Bouteflika's health, opposition leaders say he should make way for a new generation who want to reform a country they say has been run behind-the-scenes since independence by a clique of aging FLN elites and army generals.
Their call is unlikely to have major impact on Bouteflika's election bid. But it was the first time adversaries MSP and the secularist RCD party have joined forces in a sign of opposition to a fourth term in Algeria's political establishment.
Opposition parties are still weak in Algeria, where analysts
say FLN political elites and the powerful military intelligence, known as the DRS, have tussled in backroom negotiations over power since independence from France in 1962.
Bouteflika has yet to announce his intentions himself, but he has registered his candidacy with the interior ministry, and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on Saturday said Bouteflika would run for a fourth term.
Despite government assurances Bouteflika is in good health, he has been seen only a few times since returned from Paris.
Opposition leaders say they doubt he is well enough to run a campaign or even really govern the country. A second visit to Paris hospital for check-ups in January fueled more talk over a potential handover.
Any political transition in Algeria, a major energy supplier to Europe, would have come at a delicate time with neighbors Egypt and Libya still deep in turmoil three years after popular uprisings ousted their own long-standing rulers.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Angus MacSwan)