Zine El Abidine Ben Ali wins third term as Tunisian president

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The Independent Online

Tunisians overwhelmingly elected Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a third term as president in their nation's first multi-party presidential election, the Interior Ministry said today.

Tunisians overwhelmingly elected Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a third term as president in their nation's first multi-party presidential election, the Interior Ministry said today.

Ben Ali won more than 99 percent of the vote with turn out at about 90 percent.

Ben Ali's two opponents had admitted beforehand they had little chance of winning.

The layout of the new parliament, also being voted in, has been carefully determined in advance.

The 3.5 million eligible voters had to choose between Ben Ali, 63, running for his final, five-year term, and two moderate opposition candidates, Behlag Amor, 62, head of the leftist Popular Unity Party, and Abderrahmane Tlili, 56, head of the Unionist Democratic Union, an Arab nationalist party.

Voters also chose among 906 parliamentary candidates from seven parties and several independent lists to fill 182 seats.

Ben Ali - who won more than 99 percent of the vote as the single candidate in 1989 and 1994 elections - presented himself as the "citizen president" during the two-week campaign.

However, critics claim the former interior minister maintains an iron grip on this tiny Westward-looking Muslim nation on the Mediterranean, which has a population of only 9.4 million.

Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally party (RCD) is the only political party of consequence in Tunisia.

The 182-seat parliament, likewise, has been a well-controlled institution, with the opposition holding only 19 seats. A new electoral law which upped the quota should give the opposition at least 34 seats after the vote.

Candidate Amor regretted in an interview "the absence of democratic debate" in the campaign and the "pot of dirt against the pot of iron," a reference to insufficient funds for all but the president.

But he said he was running to help break the mould of the single candidate that Tunisia has known since gaining independence from France in 1956.

Candidate Tlili said he too was in the race "to contribute to the maturation of the democratic process" and that he was not a candidate "against Ben Ali, but with him."

"Obviously, I voted for Ben Ali," said a post office worker at a voting station in Bab Souika, a working-class district of Tunis. She identified herself as Leila, 52, a member of the RCD.

"He has given us peace and prosperity," she said. "When I saw his name on the list, my hands trembled with emotion."

Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987, toppling President-for-Life Habib Bourguiba, the nation's founder, said to be senile.

Both Ben Ali and Bourguiba helped build Tunisia into one of the Arab world's most modern nations. Tunisia has won accolades from the West for its moves toward a market economy and for liberal laws regarding women.

However, human rights groups criticize Tunisia for abuses ranging from harassment to jailing and torture of political opponents and a muzzled press.

Moncef, 33, a doctor, chose not to vote.

"It's for sure that Ben Ali's work has been positive," he said. "Tunisia is on the path to modernity. It's just that Tunisians ... would like some freedom of expression."

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