ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika signed a decree on Friday authorizing a formal start to campaigning for the April 17 presidential election in the major oil- and gas-producing OPEC country.
Reported by the official news agency APS, the decree was Bouteflika's first public act after he returned from a hospital visit in Paris on Thursday for what state media called health check-ups following a stroke at the start of last year.
No television footage or pictures were immediately released of the 76-year-old leader, whose brief hospitalisation once again fuelled speculation about whether he himself will be able to run for re-election in April.
Bouteflika is an important Western ally against militant Islamists in North Africa.
With Algeria's electoral commission receiving authorization to launch the campaign, candidates now have 45 days to confirm with the constitutional council that they will run.
A possible handover of power by Bouteflika has raised uncertainty in Algeria at a turbulent time for North Africa, with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya still struggling to see through transitions after uprisings ousted veteran autocrats in 2011.
Bouteflika, who has governed Algeria since 1999, has yet to say whether he will run again but his inner circle are confident he will go for another five years, touting him as indispensable to stability.
He suffered a stroke last year that put him in a French hospital for three months until his return in July.
But APS said on Thursday that his condition had shown "marked improvement" after routine checks in Paris.
Critics say he is too ill to run and should step aside for a younger political generation. But the ruling FLN party says Bouteflika is their only candidate. If he enters the field he will be aiming for a fourth term and almost certainly win due to the nationalist party's dominant role.
After years of centralised state control over the economy, analysts say, Algeria is in need of economic reforms, and riots and protests over housing, jobs and opportunities occasionally break out in different regions of the country.
But the shattering 1990s civil war with Islamist militants that killed 200,000 people left many Algerians wary of serious political turmoil.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Patrick Markey/Mark Heinrich)