Huge turnout in election, President Ben Ali set for victory

The Tunisian electorate turned out to vote Sunday in an election almost certain to hand a new term to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the 73-year-old who has run the North African country for more than two decades.


AFP - Tunisians voted Sunday in a general election with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali all but certain to win a fifth term in office after two decades in power.

Turnout stood at some 84 percent, according to figures published by the interior ministry at 4 pm (1500 GMT), two hours before polls closed.

State news agency TAP hailed the "spectacular participation" in the election, but Ben Ali's main rival, Ahmed Brahim, said he hoped the large turnout would "not be an indication of the typical astronomically high scores" for the Tunisian president.

Voters stood in line to cast their ballots at schools and other polling stations, although Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party are expected to sweep the presidential and parliamentary elections.


"I vote for Ben Ali out of habit. He is the only one I know," said Abdelkrim, a taxi driver in his 50s who voted in a school west of Tunis.

"I don't know the other candidates. They are Tunisians who surely love their country, but they are not known."

Ben Ali, 73,  is being challenged by three other candidates in his bid for a fifth term, the last under the constitution of 2002 which allows successive mandates but sets the age limit in elections to 75.

After ruling the north African country for 22 years, Ben Ali faces a difficult economic climate in spite of prudent financial management.

Ben Ali vowed to elevate Tunisia to the rank of developed countries, and he has committed himself during his next mandate to reducing an unemployment rate of 14 percent.

Tunisia has been commended for its "solid economic foundations" and "real efforts at modernisation" by the International Monetary Fund, but the army in 2008 had to put down unemployment riots in a mining region.

Ben Ali ousted Tunisia's first elected president since independence from France, Habib Bourguiba, for senility in 1987. At every vote since then, his opponents have cried fraud over the staggering scale of Ben Ali's win.

In the last elections in 2004, Ben Ali was returned to office with 94.4 percent of the vote, while his RCD won an overwhelming majority in parliament.

In Sunday's election, the RCD is expected to keep its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, where it has 214 seats.

The election campaign has revealed a gulf between the means available to the opposition and the well-oiled machinery of the RCD, while Ben Ali has the support of the chamber of commerce and the trade unions.

The RCD itself has 2.7 million members and is deeply entrenched in the north African country of some 10.3 million people.

Ben Ali's poster is everywhere and the RCD has been mobilising massively with its red and white colours, while the presidential purple is also draped from buildings, even in small villages.

Ben Ali's wife Leila has also been a part of the media campaign.

His rivals are little known and their pictures appear on spaces set aside in the towns, while they also get media coverage, but can only rally a few hundred people to their meetings, according to witnesses.

Ahmed Brahim, 63, a retired university professor who proposes bold reforms, slammed the censorship of his manifesto and seizure of copies of the newspaper of his left-wing party, Ettajdid (Renewal), which has three parliament seats.

"I was able to make a voice other than the regime's heard, and that is enough for me," Brahim told reporters after voting in a Tunis suburb.

Two other would-be candidates, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi and Mustapha Ben Jaafar, were banned from the race for "non-conformity with the law," leading foes of the regime to denounce "the masquerade" of democracy and accuse the regime of producing "tailor-made laws" to deal with opponents.

The other candidates in Sunday's poll are Mohamed Bouchiha, 61, of the Party of Popular Unity (11 seats), and Ahmed Inoubli, 51, of the Democratic Unionist Union (seven seats).

More people are eligible to vote in this ballot -- some 5.2 million --  after the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. Official results are expected on Monday.

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