Tunisians vote in presidential election with no expectation of surprise

Tunisians vote on Sunday in a 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 went to the polls on Sunday in presidential and parliamentary elections that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) can be sure of winning.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and are set to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT). 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 should be announced on Monday.

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

He has been in power after ousting Tunisia's first elected president since independence from France, Habib Bourguiba, for senility in 1987. At every vote since, 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 parallel legislative elections on Sunday, the RCD is expected to keep its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, where it has 214 seats.

The electoral campaign that began on October 11 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 bosses' organisation as well as that of 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, is trying to present himself as a real contender, who will not settle for the role of an "extra" on the sidelines of the vote.

A retired university professor, Brahim proposes bold reforms and objected to censorship of his manifesto, as well as the seizure of copies of the paper of his left-wing party, Ettajdid (Renewal), which has three parliamentary seats.

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).

In the legislative polls, only the RCD will be putting up candidates in all 26 constituencies of the country, while seven opposition parties are contesting the ballot, with several independent candidates.

On the strength of economic success, Ben Ali wants 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 a good record of prudent financial management and 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.


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