By Shadi Bushra and Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - After more than a quarter of a century in power, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir looks as strong as ever ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next week.
A boycott by the main opposition parties has left Bashir and his National Congress Party with no real challenge in the April 13-15 polls where the 71-year-old is styling himself as a rock of stability and regional statesman seeking closer ties with wealthy Gulf Arab states.
Bashir has told voters only he can steer Sudan away from the type of chaos engulfing several Arab countries where he says Western-backed aspirations for democracy, that flourished in the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings, took priority over stability.
"There are those ... who aim to do in Sudan what has happened in Yemen, Syria and Libya," he told a rally in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan state.
"But we will not allow this to happen to Sudan," he said, to cheers from the crowd.
Sudan has faced a rebellion in the Darfur region since 2003 and a separate but linked insurgency in Blue Nile and South Kordofan since the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
Bashir's critics complain of a crackdown on media, civil society and the opposition and reject his assertion that Sudan would become a haven for extremists under a different president.
"Bashir continuing in power is a larger threat than democracy," said Jebril Bilal, from the rebel group JEM.
"The dead in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile are more than the dead in the Arab Spring countries."
Bashir's opponents say the president has given security forces more room for a crackdown in the months leading up to elections, after initially opening up political space last year.
"When the government confiscated issues of 14 newspapers in one day (in February), that was unprecedented in my 30 years as a journalist in Sudan," said Faisal Mohamed Salih of Teeba Press, a non-governmental organization that trains journalists.
In an apparent conciliatory measure, Sudan released two opposition figures on Thursday, a move the largest opposition party Umma dismissed as insignificant.
ECONOMY AND DIPLOMACY
Apart from security, Bashir has campaigned on issues such as improving access to water and farmland that most affect the nearly half of Sudan's population of 37 million people in poverty.
The economy has recovered somewhat since a freefall immediately after South Sudan's secession, thanks to lower oil costs and bumper harvests, but unemployment and inflation remain high.
In a diplomatic maneuver that could unlock badly-needed investment, Sudan has said it will join a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in a surprise move analysts said was aimed at showing Gulf powers Khartoum can be a reliable partner.
Sudan says its role in Yemen is unrelated to its economy and intended to protect holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Some Sudanese see things otherwise.
"The Gulf states will support Sudan with billions of dollars, just like they did for Egypt," said merchant Ahmed Taha, 58, in Khartoum, where campaign banners showed Bashir opposite Saudi Arabia's King Salman.
Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 coup that was backed by Islamists and the army, has made two visits to Saudi Arabia in the past six months.
"Regionally, Bashir has come in out of the cold," said Alex de Waal, Sudan expert at Tufts University in the United States. "He's positioned himself well."
With no real challenge to Bashir, others were simply apathetic.
"I don't see any reason for these elections," said kebab shop worker Mohamed Karam, 26. "If he really wants to be president, just let him be president and be done with it."
(Editing by Sylvia Westall and Robin Pomeroy)