Tunisia’s Ben Ali set for 5th five-year term

Tunisians began voting on Sunday to elect a new President and parliament in a race expected to achieve another landslide victory for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali despite timid measures by authorities to let the nascent opposition have its say.

Ben Ali is running for a fifth five-year term, having taking power in 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, in which he achieved between 99.2 and 99.7 percent.

Though the campaign ended Friday, Ben Ali took the unusual step of going on national television late Saturday to attack any Tunisian who might criticize the elections as unbalanced or fraudulent.

A “tiny minority” was taking advantage of the elections to criticize the Tunisian government or question the vote, Ben Ali said, apparently referring to human rights activists who say the regime hasn’t followed through on pledges to liberalize.

Such smear 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.

Under the current constitution, it is the last time the 73-year-old Ben Ali can run for president, because the age limit is set at 75. More than 5 million voters, out of a population of 10 million, are registered to vote.

Ben Ali faces three low-profile opponents. He is backed by virtually every labor union and by his party Constitutional and Democratic Rally, or RCD, which has been continuously in power since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956.

Two challengers, Mohamed Bouchiha of the PUP party and Ahmed Inoubli of the UDU, are seen as posing only cosmetic opposition.

The fourth candidate, Ahmed Brahim, of the Ettajdid, or “change,” party, sent ripples through society merely by declaring during the campaign that he would run “equal to equal” against Ben Ali.

“To say there is very, very, very little suspense about his re-election is a euphemism,” said Hatem, a shopkeeper in central Tunis who only gave his first name because he didn’t want to appear to be criticizing the country’s leadership.

Despite criticism by human rights groups, many Tunisian voters see continuity as a good thing in this Mediterranean tourist haven, a strong diplomatic and business ally of the U.S. and Europe and a relatively secular, moderate player in the Arab world.

While Brahim and others complained of multiple obstacles during the low-key campaign, authorities point to steps to increase pluralism. Opposition candidates have been allowed, for instance, to hold meetings in the capital, 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. A group of five Tunisian NGOs announced Friday it had calculated that the space allotted to Ben Ali and his party occupied more than 90 percent of all Tunisia’s printed press during the campaign.

Voters will also choose 214 lawmakers for the lower house of parliament. The RCD is certain to get the majority. But 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, including London-based Amnesty International and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, deplore the general absence of any real freedom of expression or assembly, the overbearing police presence, and ongoing human rights abuses despite government pledges of reform.

Associated Press


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