- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

TUNIS, Tunisia During the next few months, critical for Tunisia's economy, the government of this North African country faces some crucial questions about its political system, known here as "presidential democracy."

The stakes include Tunisia's relations with its trading partners, its aspirations for closer ties with European democracies and its role as the leading Arab country in the war against terrorism.

The questions asked in Western chanceries stem from the May 26 referendum that revamped the Tunisia Constitution, created an additional chamber in the parliament and above all just about guaranteed two more five-year terms for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He has been power since 1987.

According to official figures, 96.15 percent of Tunisia's voters went to the polls, casting 3,271,198 valid ballots of which 99.61 percent were in favor of the reforms proposed by Mr. Ben Ali.

Hailed by Tunisian officials as "a victory for democracy and a triumph of patriots," the referendum was described as a sham by the regime's opponents and the outcome "unbelievable" and "insolent" by some European diplomats.

Mr. Ben Ali, who 14 years ago removed from power the aging and senile "President-for-life" Habib Bourguiba, was last re-elected in 1999 with 99.44 percent of the vote, a margin of victory generally ridiculed by media in France, Tunisia's former colonial master.

The May 26th referendum the first in the history of this country of nearly 10 million people took place a little over a month after a suicide bombing outside the historic El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Blamed on Islamic fundamentalists, the blast killed 15 persons and injured 30 reminding the country that despite stringent security measures introduced by Mr. Ben Ali, Tunisia is not immune from terrorism.

While Tunisia's Western friends appear considerably confused by the figures of the referendum, Mr. Ben Ali's political supporters claim his continuing presence at the country's helm is essential for the survival of his economic and social policies that have given Tunisia an unprecedented level of prosperity, social services and education.

In recent months, Tunisia's economic health has shown some strain, requiring budgetary belt-tightening.

Five small parties, the "legal opposition," urged their followers to take part in the referendum as an "expression of the democratic process." The vocal Ettajdid party, which boycotted the voting, was ignored by the officially sanctioned press and was denied radio and television time.

The voting was supervised by members of Mr. Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), a party that has dominated Tunisia since its 1956 independence from France, changing names and ideological programs according to the requirements of the president.

The party's constant affiliation with the state has been the subject of debate in countries maintaining friendly relations with Tunisia.

According to Western diplomats, supervision of the vote and control of the media have raised questions about the freedom of expression in Tunisia, where the president is the supreme arbiter, accountable to no one. Under Article 41 of the constitution, he enjoys judicial immunity, even after leaving office.

The referendum was preceded by a two-week campaign during which Mr. Ben Ali was hailed by his supporters as the country's "savior," the man who has given Tunisia stability.

The weather was as glorious as the paeans to Mr. Ben Ali. The sun had not yet burned spring greenery, which carpeted the rolling countryside outside Tunis.

To Ali Chaouch, secretary of the RCD, approval of the referendum was part of the president's long-term program of turning Tunisia into a full-fledged democracy.

"The country evolves, the institutions have to evolve as well," he said in the new glass-and-concrete high-rise party headquarters. "We believe that it is in the country's interest that President Ben Ali continues."

Describing the achievements of the regime as "considerable," he said: "Poverty has been pushed back, the revenue has risen, Tunisia is considered internationally on the right track."

While a number of Western diplomats remain skeptical about the procedure used during the referendum, there were no indications that the authorities are inclined to listen.

Commented Abdelwahed Abdallah, spokesman for the presidency with the rank of minister: "Tunisia needs no lessons on how to decide its fundamental choice that is a society based on democracy and human rights."

Moncef Marzouki, who heads the fringe Congress for the Republic, retorted, "Tunisia has been a false republic and a false democracy throughout its independent existence."

Under the revised constitution, Mr. Ben Ali, who is 65, can serve until the age limit of 75. Officials say he will thus be able to preside for 10 more years over the process of turning Tunisia into "a young developed nation."

Recent statistics show constant progress, including higher life expectancy, growth of the number of medical doctors almost half of them women and the virtual elimination of illiteracy among the young. Education is compulsory until age 16.

The role of Tunisia's women is such that one international banker described their presence in every profession as "the most effective barrier against Islamic fundamentalism."

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