TUNIS // Zine el Abidine Ben Ali cruised to a fifth consecutive term as Tunisia's president in elections on Sunday, garnering 89.62 per cent of the vote, the interior ministry announced yesterday, in what the government hailed as an advance for democracy.
Opposition leaders, however, said the state managed to keep Mr Ben Ali and his Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party in power through legal manoeuvres and stifling regulations, all at the expense of democratic reform. Sixteen electoral observers from the African Union, plus 26 from Tunisia and another 11 from European and Arab countries, said that voting, carried out in several thousand polling stations followed international standards.
Newspapers were clamouring for voters' attention as polling stations opened on Sunday, with the RCD's organ, Le Renouvelle, proclaiming "the duty to vote, the right to choose" above a large picture of Mr Ben Ali. While official figures put turnout at 89.45 per cent of some 5.3 million voters, election officials appeared to outnumber voters at some stations in and around Tunis. Mr Ben Ali lashed out at critics in a speech on Saturday, threatening legal action against any Tunisian who "spreads doubts or accusations about the integrity of the electoral process without providing hard proof".
The government said the results had strengthened political pluralism in Tunisia. But opposition leaders insist the opposite has occurred. "On the contrary, these elections have seen the space afforded to the opposition shrink," said Ahmed Brahim of the leftist Tajdeed Movement, widely considered to be the sole opposition voice among Mr Ben Ali's three challengers. Mr Ben Ali first came to power in 1987, when as prime minister he stepped in for an ailing president, Habib Bourguiba, declared senile by doctors after ruling Tunisia since it gained independence from France in 1956.
Since then, Mr Ben Ali has won four elections and pursued Bourguiba's agenda of secularism, free markets and good relations with the West, and today leads the RCD, which captured all 161 of Tunisia's directly elected parliamentary seats. An additional 53 seats doled out proportionately to opposition parties ensures their access to politics, Zouhair M'Dhafer, the minister for administrative development, told reporters last Tuesday.
But opposition leaders counter that media, political parties and public meetings are regulated by a government beholden to Mr Ben Ali. "The electoral landscape has been fashioned according to the political decisions of the interior ministry," said Maya Jribi, the secretary general of the Progressive Democratic Party, which boycotted elections after its planned contender, Najib Chebbi, was sidelined last year by a new law requiring at least two years as party leader.
No such concerns trouble Ahlem, a Tunis housewife, who positioned herself at the entryway of Habib Bourguiba high school on Sunday to chant slogans in support of Mr Ben Ali. "He's done so much for the country and everything here is good," she beamed. "Except for jobs - sometimes there aren't any." While Tunisia enjoys living standards approaching western Europe and has generally weathered recent global economic turmoil, the government is struggling to bring down an official unemployment rate of 14 per cent.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have accused the government of using heavy-handed policing and an arsenal of bureaucratic tools to silence critics. This month authorities seized copies of Tajdeed's newspaper containing Mr Brahim's manifesto, citing alleged violations of electoral law, and last Tuesday Florence Beaugé, a correspondent for France's Le Monde newspaper, was denied entry to Tunisia. Many Tunisians are hesitant to discuss politics, wary of plainclothes police, who often shadow foreign reporters.
"In Tunisia you have a strong middle class and trade unions that work according to democratic rules," said Hamadi Redissi, a politics professor at the University of Tunis. But such modernisation has not been matched by democratic reform, he said. For some, the only way forward has been to leave. "There is one party in power here-one!-and the country is being strangled," said Maher, a marketing student, who was planning his imminent departure to Europe. "I've got a plane ticket to Europe for studies; I'm not coming back."