Campaigning for Sudan’s forthcoming election has begun, with 12 presidential hopefuls set to challenge Omar al-Bashir, the current president.

The exercise kicked off on Saturday, paving the way for the first multi-party poll since 1986. Al-Bashir seized power in 1989 in a coup in Africa’s largest country.

After being pushed back twice, the presidential election is set to take place on April 11, alongside legislative and regional polls.

A referendum on whether southern Sudan should become independent is expected in 2011.

Al-Bashir, who seized power with support from conservative Muslim groups, is facing off against 11 other hopefuls.

They include Fatima Ahmed Abdelmahmud, the first woman ever to aspire to the presidency, and Sadiq al-Mahdi, the two-time former prime minister whom al-Bashir ousted.

Al-Bashir is the world’s first sitting president facing an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of alleged crimes against humanity in Sudan’s western Darfur region.