RABAT // Supporters of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali are eyeing his re-election even though he is still in the first year of a five-year presidential term that current age restrictions dictate should be his last.
Last month, 1,000 Ben Ali supporters - including business leaders, academics and media personalities - issued a statement in two pro-government newspapers urging the president, 74, to stand for a sixth consecutive term in 2014. It followed a similar statement by 65 prominent Tunisians a fortnight earlier. While Mr Ben Ali's fans credit him with making Tunisia stable and prosperous, opposition leaders say he has done so by consolidating power at the expense of democratic reform.
The show of support for Mr Ben Ali last month may set the stage for a constitutional amendment that would allow Mr Ben Ali to remain president, said J Scott Carpenter, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former US diplomat in the Middle East, who also served as deputy assistant secretary of state at the state department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "Ben Ali has been a trailblazer in creating popular support, or the appearance of popular support, to prop up his legitimacy," Mr Carpenter said. A move to raise or abolish the presidential age limit would be the latest in "a procession of legal efforts to keep Ben Ali in power".
Mr Ben Ali first became president in 1987, when as prime minister he stepped in for an ailing Habib Bourguiba. He was declared unfit for office by doctors after ruling Tunisia since it gained independence from France in 1956. Since then, Mr Ben Ali has won five consecutive elections and heads the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). However, a report this year by Freedom House, an independent democracy monitor in Washington, characterised Tunisia as "not an electoral democracy", citing restrictions on media and government control of candidacy.
In 2002, the constitution was changed by referendum to remove presidential term limits and bump the cut-off age for candidates to 75 from 70, allowing Mr Ben Ali to stand in elections in 2004 and 2009. Another amendment in 2008 narrowed the electoral field to party leaders with at least two years in office, sidelining the leading opposition contender, Najib Chebbi, from elections last year. Mr Ben Ali coasted to victory with just under 90 per cent of the vote, while the RCD took all 161 directly elected parliamentary seats. An additional 53 seats were doled out to opposition parties, which the government says ensures their access to politics.
Government officials have said that the election reforms have strengthened democracy. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have countered that media, political parties and public meetings are regulated by a state apparatus beholden to Mr Ben Ali. It is too early to know whether Mr Ben Ali is planning to stand for re-election, said Roger Bismuth, a businessman, senator and presidential adviser who was among the 1,000 signatories of last month's statement.
"He's free to decide what he wants to do," Mr Bismuth said. "We hope he will stand again because it would be in the interest of the country." Since replacing Bourguiba, who died in 2000, Mr Ben Ali has pursued his predecessor's agenda of secularism, women's emancipation, free markets and good relations with the West. Although the government is working to bring down an official unemployment rate of 14 per cent, Tunisia enjoys a standard of living and public services on par with western Europe.
"We've got women business leaders, trade agreements with Europe and markets operating well," Mr Bismuth said. "Why should we change a formula that works?" However, opposition leaders say that the legislative manoeuvres needed to keep Mr Ben Ali in power would be anti-democratic. "Constitutional reform should go in the direction of power changing hands and the spirit of liberty," said Mr Chebbi, a senior member of the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP). "What's the sense of a republic where the head of state is there for life?"
The Freedom House report said that authorities use heavy-handed policing and an arsenal of bureaucratic tools to silence critics, charges the government denies. The PDP is planning to circulate a petition in the next few weeks opposing the recent calls for more of Mr Ben Ali, Mr Chebbi said. "We'll probably get only a few hundred signatures because people are afraid, but thousands more will speak out online."
More than 8,000 people have joined a campaign launched last month on Facebook to protest against what critics portray as Mr Ben Ali's intent to extend his tenure before handing power directly to a chosen successor. The PDP, meanwhile, is calling for the presidency to be opened to all candidates and limited to two terms, with an independent mechanism to carry out elections that are currently overseen by the interior ministry.
"Ben Ali doesn't need to fear running in completely transparent elections, because people give him credit for many things," Mr Carpenter said. "For being as progressive as Tunisia claims to be, why not pursue a more open political system?" email@example.com