* Bouteflika defends candidacy; health questions linger
* Opposition parties already seeking April 17 boycott
* Many Algerians wary of unrest after 1990s civil war
(Adds more details)
By Patrick Markey
ALGIERS, March 22 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
said in a letter addressed to Algerians on Saturday his poor
health would not prevent him from running for a fourth term and
promised constitutional reforms if he wins the April 17
Bouteflika, 77, registered his candidacy earlier this month
despite suffering from a stroke last year that opponents say has
left him unfit to campaign or govern the North African oil
producer for another five years.
In the letter published by APS state news agency, Bouteflika
gave his most detailed remarks yet about his intentions although
he has spoken and appeared rarely in public since the illness
that put him into a Paris hospital for months.
"It would cost me dearly to remain deaf to your calls. I
decided not to disappoint you and offer myself as a candidate
for the presidential election ... and give all my energy to
fulfilling your wishes," the letter said.
With the backing of the dominant National Liberation
Front(FLN) party, loyal army factions and unions, Bouteflika is
almost assured victory in Algeria, a key partner in Washington's
campaign on Islamist militancy in the Maghreb.
Official campaigning starts Sunday and loyalists portray
Bouteflika as the man who helped stabilise Algeria after its
1990s war with Islamist militants, a conflict that left many
Algerians still wary of political upheaval.
But critics say since its 1962 independence from France,
Algerian politics have been dominated by FLN elites and army
generals who, while competing behind the scenes for influence,
see themselves as guarantors of stability.
Since his illness, Bouteflika's allies have pushed to
strengthen his position by reducing the influence of the
country's powerful military intelligence chief, who for years
played the role of kingmaker in Algerian politics.
Still, analysts say, those political rivalries may resurface
if Bouteflika's health fades during a fourth term, though they
are unlikely to threaten Algeria's stability.
Six opposition parties, including Islamist and secular
movements, have announced that they will boycott April's vote
which they say is unfairly tilted in FLN's favour. They remain
weak and divided, and no opposition candidate is likely to
seriously challenge Bouteflika.
In his letter, Bouteflika said if re-elected he would seek
reforms to create a political model with different segments of
society that would "meet the expectations and hopes of the
people", without giving further details.
"That would be realised through a constitutional reform,
which could take place during the current year," he said.
One source close to the presidency said reforms may include
the creation of a vice presidential post and limit the number of
times future presidents can run for office.
Algeria's election comes at a difficult time for its
neighbours. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are struggling with the
instability that followed their "Arab Spring" revolts that
ousted long-ruling autocrats in 2011.
With huge foreign reserves from its energy sales - around
$200 billion - Algeria has spent heavily on housing and social
programs to ward off protests. But social tensions over jobs,
services and housing are widespread.
Bouteflika's rare public appearances have also left
questions about what happens next if his health worsens, he
cannot continue and has to step down after winning the election
"I propose to devote this new mandate you have demanded of
me to preserving our country from internal and external
hostilities," the president said in his letter.
(Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Eric Walsh)