Africa's largest country Algeria has begun voting in a presidential election, with incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika ailing but still likely to be returned for a fourth term. Some parties have called for a poll boycott.
Some 23 million Algerians are expected to cast their votes Thursday to elect the next president of the vast oil and gas-rich nation. The strongest challenge was expected to come from ex-premier Ali Benflis.
Bouteflika came to power in 1999 as the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Front after being credited with helping to end Algeria's civil war of the 1990s.
Last month, the 77-year-old decided to seek a new term despite scandals implicating his inner circle and a mini-stroke suffered last year. Critics mounted a campaign called Barakat - meaning "enough" - and have described the poll as "farcical."
Algeria's army and its DRS intelligence service are still widely considered to be the real power in Algeria.
During protests across the Arab world in 2011, Bouteflika headed off unrest with pay rises and minor reforms. Youth unemployment remains high - at 21 percent among under 35s - despite windfall oil revenues. Three quarters of Algeria's population is younger than 35 years old.
Challenge from Benflis
Benflis, a 69-year-old lawyer, who co-founded Algeria's League of Human Rights in the 1980s, decided to stand in Thursday's election after a 10-year political absence.
In 2004 he ran against Bouteflika, but won only 6.4 percent of the vote.
The only woman candidate is Louisa Hanoune, a 60-year-old member of parliament and a prominent left-wing politician.
Since Sudan split into two, Algeria is Africa's biggest country, spanning 2.4 square kilometers (920,000 square miles). Its Mediterranean coastline reaches 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).
ipj/hc (AFP, dpa)