By Patrick Markey and Lamine Chikhi
CHLEF, Algeria (Reuters) - At a packed sports hall in western Algeria, portraits of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gaze down on supporters rallying for his re-election. But the leader himself, weakened by a stroke a year ago, is a no-show.
Throughout campaigning for the April 17 polls, Bouteflika has remained mostly out of the public eye apart from brief television appearances, as he has done since falling ill.
His absences, and his health, have raised doubts about what will happen after the election in an OPEC oil exporter that supplies a fifth of Europe's gas, and plays a significant role in the Western war on Islamist militants.
For now, Bouteflika is campaigning by proxy. With his former prime minister and allies crisscrossing Algeria in his name, the 77-year-old independence veteran is almost assured of a fourth term after 15 years leading the nation.
They promise that Bouteflika, who is credited with ending a civil war in the 1990s between the state and domestic Islamist militants, can keep Algeria stable.
This is a powerful message in a country still traumatized by the conflict that killed 200,000 and left little appetite for the turmoil unleashed on its neighbors after the revolts of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
It is a theme that goes down well at the sports hall in Chlef. This is deep in loyalist territory, the farming provinces ravaged by the war where Bouteflika is hailed as the man who delivered peace, and who can keep delivering it.
"He is like a father to us," said Fatima Benahou, a public administrator at the rally. "He means stability, security. We supported him yesterday, and we are loyal so the least we can do is recognize what he has done."
Opponents dismiss Bouteflika's bid as the last breath of the old guard from the ruling Front de Liberation Nationale party (FLN) which has dominated Algerian politics since 1962 independence from France.
With the backing of the political machinery of the FLN, army factions and business elite, Bouteflika faces little challenge from rival candidates despite his absences.
On Thursday, state television showed him greeting the Emir of Qatar, and talking and joking in French with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his longest public appearance in a year.
Algeria resisted the upheaval of the Arab Spring, largely due to the aversion to instability. With $200 billion in reserves built up from oil and gas exports, state spending on social programs, credits and housing eased any unrest.
Instead, Algeria's struggles go on behind closed doors between the independence-era clans - the FLN elite and the army intelligence agency DRS - which see themselves as guardians of stability.
Since Bouteflika's illness his allies have strengthened their hand, transferring and firing generals to curb DRS influence over politics, and placing loyalists in top posts.
Once Bouteflika wins another term, however, rival clans may again stake their claims for power under him, positioning for the day they expect he will step aside.
"They are preparing for what comes next. The struggle to see who will succeed will resume after April 17," said one diplomat.
STABILITY ABOVE ALL
Bouteflika, a hero of the independence war against France, was first elected in 1999. In office, he helped negotiate a truce ending the civil war that broke out after the FLN cancelled elections which Islamists were poised to win.
In Chlef, many still credit Bouteflika with making Algeria more stable, peaceful and rich. Several thousand supporters and youths rallied at the hall to hear former premier Abdelmalek Sellal praise his credentials, and offer housing, and a new sports stadium.
Horsemen in traditional garb carrying hunting shotguns greeted Sellal outside the hall where banners reading "He gave us a lot, time for us to be loyal" and "My Oath for Algeria" drove home the message that Bouteflika equals stability.
"I am a veteran of the independence war. The only choice I have is to vote for someone like me, someone I can trust," said Bourezag Bgillali, 83, dressed in traditional robes and turban.
The president's allies point to instability in the region. Turmoil blamed on militias over the border in Libya worries Algeria, as well as Western powers who support the central government in Tripoli struggling to impose security.
"Look at the neighborhood around us, make a comparison," Sellal said. "Algeria is like an island of peace."
Militant violence, while rarer now, is not absent. Last year 40 oil workers, most of them foreigners, died in an Islamist attack on the Amenas gas plant. Some of the fighters had slipped over the border from Libya's southern deserts.
And despite the lack of an "Arab spring"-style revolt, there are occasional anti-government protests: police on Saturday fired tear gas to disperse groups of youths who tossed rocks and burned a hall where Sellal was due to speak in Bejaia, a Berber-speaking area east of Algiers where anti-government sentiment runs high. Two police were injured, security officials said.
Opposition critics accept Algeria may be more stable, but they also see a country mired in corruption, and political and economic torpor. After decades of state economic controls, a legacy of post-independence socialism, Algeria needs reforms to ease restrictions on foreign investment. Energy output, which makes up more than 90 percent of state revenue, is stagnating.
The five main opposition candidates running against Bouteflika seem to have little hope in a political system critics say has hardly changed since independence, and is still dominated by the FLN and its network of allied parties.
"This country is not even a kingdom, it is private property," Abdullah Jaballah, said a leader of the Islamist El Adala party, one of several groups that are boycotting the election. "We want a peaceful revolution, not a violent one for change. The least we can do is say no to the election."
Many young Algerians are dismissive of party politics. But protests are more common over food prices, unemployment, housing, services and loans - the same grievances that exploded into revolution in neighboring Tunisia three years ago.
Wary of "Arab Spring"-style tensions, in 2011, Bouteflika vaguely promised political reforms, but also increased budget spending by 25 percent, using reserves to ease riots and protests with spending on public workers' wages, jobs, housing and subsidies on flour, milk and cooking oil.
Keeping up state largesse to ease tensions will depend on world energy prices staying high. But strikes, rallies and small protest movements in Algeria have been scattered, far from coalescing into a movement for widescale political reform.
"Bouteflika is about to finish the job, why should we go to someone else who will just be starting?" said Djambl Laoueta, 22, a student looking for work. "With Bouteflika, we will get something pretty soon."
(Writing by Patrick Markey, Editing by David Stamp)