x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ben Ali poised for fifth term in Tunisia

Some Tunisians are hungry for change and the opposition alleges that the government bends the rules but the economy is growing and most people are content.

Workers put up banners backing the Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in today's elections.
Workers put up banners backing the Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in today's elections.

TUNIS // None other than the Harlem Globetrotters hit Tunisia last weekend, all slapstick and basketball magic, for a youth rally supporting the re-election campaign of the president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, whom rivals say is similarly unbeatable. As Tunisians vote today in presidential and legislative elections, Mr Ben Ali is poised to score a fifth term as president, a post he last won in 2004 with 94.4 per cent of the vote, according to official figures.

Mr Ben Ali's supporters credit him with keeping Tunisia stable and prosperous in a turbulent region, while the government says the elections will strengthen democracy in the country. But opposition leaders say the state has deployed various legal manoeuvres and heavy-handed policing to ensure Mr Ben Ali's victory at the expense of democratic reform. Mr Ben Ali first came to power in 1987, when as prime minister he took over for an ailing President Habib Bourguiba, declared senile by doctors after ruling Tunisia since it gained independence from its former coloniser, France, in 1956.

Installed in the presidential palace above the ruins of ancient Carthage, today a suburb of the capital, Tunis, Mr Ben Ali went on to win the 1989 and subsequent elections and has continued pushing Mr Bourguiba's agenda of secularism, free markets and good relations with the West. However, tension is rising among Tunisians hungry for an alternative to Mr Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally party (RCD), a political behemoth that holds 152 of the Tunisia's 189 parliamentary seats, analysts said.

"There's a strong and deep need for change," said Hamadi Redissi, a politics professor at the University of Tunis. "People want new leadership." Mr Ben Ali has promised to expand democracy during his expected fifth and probably final mandate, since current age limitations would bar him from standing for another five-year term in 2014. "Tunisia has never claimed to be a western-style democracy," said Zouhair M'Dhafer, Tunisia's minister for administrative development in a press conference last week, calling today's elections "an occasion to advance the democratic process" and noting that a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for opposition parties.

However, opposition leaders say the government regularly tinkers strategically with electoral law to keep the system heavily weighted in favour of Mr Ben Ali. "Free elections require freedom of candidature - that's not the case in Tunisia," said Najib Chebbi, a popular member of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party whose presidential prospects were scuppered last year by a new law requiring candidates to have been party leader for at least two years. Honestly, I was expecting some kind of artifice or other to exclude me from elections," Mr Chebbi said.

Meanwhile, news media, public meetings and political parties are regulated by a government beholden to Mr Ben Ali, amounting to an "absence of neutrality in the administration", said Mr Chebbi. Analysts say the only genuine opposition candidate among Mr Ben Ali's three contenders is Ahmed Brahim of the leftist Tajdeed Movement. Earlier this month, authorities seized a copies of Tajdeed's newspaper containing Mr Brahim's manifesto, citing alleged violations of electoral law, amid an intensifying crackdown on media. On Tuesday, Florence Beaugé, a correspondent for France's Le Monde newspaper who regularly covers North Africa, was barred from entering Tunisia by authorities at Tunis's airport and sent back to France the next day.

"Tunisia is not becoming more democratic, it's becoming more of a police state," said Mohamed Abbou, a lawyer jailed in 2005 for writing articles published online critical of the government. Released in 2007 after his case was cited by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, during a visit to Tunisia, Mr Abbou said the country's ubiquitous plainclothes police still stake out his office, frightening away potential clients.

For some, Tunisia's growing economy and comfortable standard of living trump such concerns. "I'm happy with the direction the country is taking," said Mehdi, a web designer, relaxing one evening on the terrace of a posh cafe across the lake from central Tunis. "I'm not looking for a change." Down the beach, firelight licked the wall of a brick shanty where half a dozen young workmen were stewing tomatoes and miniature octopi.

"If there was work back home I would stay there," said Walid, 27, one of the workers, from the provincial town of Jandouba, east of Tunis. "I miss my wife and son." While Tunisia has generally weathered recent global economic turmoil, the government is struggling to bring down an official unemployment rate of 14 per cent, said Roger Bismuth, a businessman and adviser to Mr Ben Ali. Last year riots by jobless phosphate miners in the oasis town of Gafsa led to the jailing of union leaders and allegations that police opened fire on demonstrators.

"Personally, I'm thinking about trying to reach Italy," said Omar, 20, a friend of Walid, dipping a fragment of baguette into his pan of stew. "I know it's dangerous but - Roma!" Beside him, Walid sat down on a spare brick and rested his head in his hands, rubbing weariness from his eyes. "At least we have bread." jthorne@thenational.ae