Monday, October 25, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was headed for an almost certain five-year extension of his mandate when Tunisians voted in presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday.

He has been in power 17 years, during which time he created a regimented society without strikes or protest, but with a growing standard of living. He has pledged gradual evolution toward a credible multiparty system.

Western governments generally support the conservative Tunisian president, although some, including the United States, would like to see greater transparency and more voice for the opposition. Tunisian officials insist Mr. Ben Ali’s approach has spared the country Islamic upheaval and kept it on a pro-Western course.

Tunisia’s dominant political party has been the main power base of the North African country’s two presidents since gaining independence from France in 1956. The original Socialist Destour Party has been renamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) by Mr. Ben Ali and has adjusted its program.

Opponents claim they have no prospects of changing the system or attracting significant voter support.

A total of 152 candidates from the RCD are virtually guaranteed seats in the 189-member Chamber of Deputies. The party has earmarked 25 percent of the seats for female candidates.

Tunisian women have made greater progress toward equality with men than in any other Arab country, and constitute a major factor in opposing Islamic fundamentalism.

The five “legal opposition” parties, which do not challenge the system introduced by Mr. Ben Ali, will be given the remaining 37 parliament seats, according to their strength in the 26 electoral districts.

Three parties have also fielded presidential candidates, but their campaigns were dwarfed by the organized RCD apparatus and Mr. Ben Ali’s dominant role. He considers himself the guarantor of Tunisia’s continued stability and economic progress.

The first official election results were not expected until today, but observers predict overwhelming approval of the 69-year old Mr. Ben Ali and of his campaign pledges. He was last re-elected in 1999 with 99.44 percent of the vote. In 2002, the Interior Ministry said 99.61 percent of Tunisians approved an amendment to extend Mr. Ben Ali’s eligibility to hold office until the age of 75.

During the 13-day campaign, Mr. Ben Ali promised to turn Tunisia into “an international center for trade and commerce,” to promote research and employment, to create a modern banking system and to continue political reforms.

The Tunisian press dutifully heaped praise on Mr. Ben Ali and his record, describing his program as “an answer to all Tunisians and a path to hoist Tunisia to the ranks of developed countries.”

One of 11 children of a dockworker, Mr. Ben Ali is a former army general trained in France and the United States. He spent four years in diplomatic posts before becoming minister of national security and then of the interior.

Named prime minister in October 1987, he peacefully removed from power a month later aging president-for-life Habib Bourguiba on the grounds of senility, as documented by Tunisia’s leading doctors. He then began a systematic struggle against Islamic fundamentalism, which at that time threatened the country.

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