Tunisia turns a blind eye to flawed poll: Charles Richards explains why elections taking place on Sunday hold no surprise for the voters

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The Independent Online
TUNISIA has no need of opinion polls to predict the results of this Sunday's election for president and parliament. They are already known. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is to be re-elected head of state. He is the only candidate. And 144 members of his ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, will be elected to the Chamber of Deputies. A further 19 seats will be reserved for seven opposition parties.

The new electoral system is based on one from Sweden. But the whole basis of the political system follows the French model, where real power lies with the president, not parliament.

The elections, however spurious they may be as an exercise in democracy, are intended to underpin the strategy of stability and continuity. The opposition will have a voice in parliament for the first time (all seats in the out-going one were held by the RCD), but since under current rules a presidential candidate needs the endorsement of at least 30 deputies or mayors, all of whom are RCD members, the system ensures that Mr Ben Ali will be the sole candidate for the next presidential elections, in five years, too. Nothing is at stake.

Tunisians, who pride themselves on being the most progressive, moderate, sophisticated, liberal and open-minded north Africans, are prepared to pay a price for stability. The government argues that stability depends on economic growth. Its achievements are impressive: more than 2.6 per cent growth last year, after more than 8 per cent the year after the Gulf war. Many European textile manufacturers have set up plants in Tunisia. Shortages are unheard of.

The Tunisian government has to contain and confront the challenges posed by economic and social dissatisfaction and the rising Islamic current in the region. To ensure stability, the authorities argue, they have to take exceptional measures. The An-Nahda Islamic Renaissance party has been suppressed. Human rights abuses have been widely reported outside the country. The press is muzzled. Criticism of the government is not permitted. President Ben Ali's paranoia peaked with his expulsion or banning last month of the correspondents of the BBC and Le Monde.

President Ben Ali, a former police chief, has taken steps to ensure opposition movements have been brought under control. Professional associations representing lawyers, doctors and engineers are loyal to him. The one group resisting his embrace, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, was brought to heel by changes in voting procedures.

Real opposition in Tunisia has always been in the large and powerful trade union federation, which was in the past co-opted into government. For this election, however, no trade unionists appear on the lists of the ruling party.

Tunisians are aware of the alternatives. They look with ill-disguised dismay at Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to the east and the murderous self-destructiveness of Algeria to the west; they are intent on avoiding the virus of violent political Islamism that is engulfing that country.

Algeria is a huge country, split racially and linguistically between Arabs and Berbers, with a history of rugged struggle against the French colonialists. Its economy was almost entirely based on oil and gas exports. Successive socialist governments created a workforce that relied on state handouts rather than its own resourcefulness.

By contrast, the sun shines on Tunisia. Oil and gas exports account for only 12 per cent of GDP. The country relies mainly on tourism and agriculture (it is the world's largest exporter of olive oil). More than a million of Tunisia's 8 million population are employed in tourism. These are, therefore, politically committed to stability. They can see how a few well-aimed shots by Islamic extremists can send tourist bookings tumbling.

Tunisia's far larger middle class largely own their own homes. The whole economy is based on providing work for as many people as possible. At the same time, population growth has been curbed by a vigorous family planning programme and the emancipation of women, who are well integrated into the workforce.

In Algeria, the Islamic trend has provided a political alternative to government. In Tunisia, where the political debate is largely about economic management, the Islamists have only vague alternatives other than the slogan 'Islam is the solution'.

In Tunisia the main Islamist movement, An-Nahda, is more moderate and bent on reform than in Algeria. It won 18 per cent of the vote in the last elections, in 1989, and up to a third in some areas, when its candidates stood as independents. But it has been repressed and marginalised through the persecution of its most senior figures. Its leader, Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi, has been granted asylum in Britain.

And as long as the economy continues to thrive, and the government delivers a relatively high standard of living, President Ben Ali can depend on a broad measure of popular support for his policies.