Tunisians set to elect Ben Ali president, again


Authorities announced mass participation in Tunisia’s presidential and legislative elections Sunday and braced for another triumphant re-election for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who warned opponents they would face legal retaliation if they questioned the vote’s fairness.

Ben Ali’s Constitutional and Democratic Rally, or RCD, had prepared balloons with the party colors to let out when preliminary results will be released late in the evening, and small crowds of supporters with brass bands cheered in the streets of the capital in anticipation of a party victory.

On a sunny day, turnout was at over 84 percent of the more than 5 million voters registered two hours before polls closed at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT, 1 p.m. EDT), according to the official TAP news agency. No incidents were reported.

Ben Ali has been in power since a bloodless palace coup in 1987 that authorities dub “The Change.” He was last re-elected in 2004 with more than 94 percent of votes — a drop from his previous victories, which fluctuated between 99.2 and 99.7 percent.

At 73, Ben Ali was running for a fifth, five-year term, due to be his last under the current constitution because of age limits. He set the tone for voting day by taking the unusual step of going on national television late Saturday to attack any Tunisian who suggests the elections are unbalanced or fraudulent. The campaign formally ended Friday.

A “tiny minority” is taking advantage of the elections to criticize the Tunisian government or question the vote, Ben Ali said.

Such campaigns, especially when addressed to foreign journalists, come from people “who have forgotten their moral duty of good behavior and reserve against those who try to harm the motherland,” Ben Ali said.

“We shall take all the measures provided by the law against such behavior,” he warned.

Twenty-six Tunisian electoral observers, 16 African Union observers and 11 people invited by Tunisian embassies in Europe and the Arab world were on hand to monitor several thousand polling stations.

All said the voting had gone well, and praised Tunisia for its strides toward democracy.

“Contrary to what we have heard, there were no pressures” on voters, said Benjamin Bounkoulou, the deputy chairman of Congo’s senate and the head of the AU monitoring mission for the Tunisian elections. “Everything happened with calm and serenity,” added Sydney Assor, the chairman of the British Abrahamic Forum Council, who headed the group of private observers invited by the government.

Assor, who’s Abrahamic Council promotes dialogue between religions, said he was “an amateur electoral observer” and had found that the vote in Tunisia happened “just like in my village in Surrey,” England.

The opposition was granted relatively greater access during this campaign, The AP saw. Some meetings were allowed in the capital, and candidates were authorized to plaster electoral posters in allotted spots and talk for one hour on national television.

But several longtime opponents were banned from joining the race on bureaucratic grounds. Maya Jribi, who heads the Democratic Progressive Party, the most significant opposition group blocked from fielding a candidate, said she’d called for boycott. “To take part would mean sanctioning this parody of an election,” she said. Ben Ali’s last-minute threat against possible critics illustrates that the elections weren’t free, she said. “There was no freedom of choice or of candidacy,” she said.

Ben Ali faced three low-profile opponents in the race. He was backed by virtually every labor union and nongovernment group, along with his RCD party, which has been continuously in power since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956.

Many voters see continuity as a good thing in this Mediterranean vacation haven, a strong U.S. and European ally and a relatively secular, moderate and stable outpost in the Arab world.

Voters were also choosing 214 lawmakers for the lower house of parliament. The RCD is certain to get the majority, though a 2008 law seen as a gesture to the opposition should allow other parties to get about a quarter of seats. Hard-line opposition movements and Islamists are outlawed.

Even Ben Ali’s opponents largely acknowledge the results he has achieved in this small country that lacks any significant natural resource.

Tunisia is expecting 3-percent growth in gross domestic product this year despite global recession; the country’s poverty rate has dropped below 4 percent of the population; and international benchmarks show Tunisia is a regional model in terms of literacy, social welfare and the important role women play in society. But rights groups deplore the general absence of any real freedom of expression or assembly.

Associated Press

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