Tunisian president re-elected in 'surreal' vote

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has won re-election for a fourth term by an overwhelming margin in a vote denounced as “surreal” and an insult to democracy by several opposition leaders.

According to final figures announced by the Interior Ministry on Monday, Ben Ali garnered 94,48% of the weekend vote while his three challengers combined won barely 6%.

Turnout among the country’s 4,6-million registered voters was put at 91,5%.

Interior Minister Hedi Mhenni underlined in a statement to reporters that the polls had taken place in democratic fashion and an atmosphere of transparency.

“We noted no serious irregularities,” he said.

Several opposition leaders, however, described the outcome as a sham.

Ben Ali, who has maintained a tight grip on the North African country for 17 years, has won landslide victories of more than 90% in successive elections seen abroad as lacking any credibility.

He claimed 99,4% of the vote in the last elections in 1999.

The only serious opposition candidate to have taken on the head of state in Sunday’s polls was Mohamed Ali Halouani, who stood for the Ettajdid (Renewal) party and won not even 1% of the vote.

“We contest these unimaginable results and the ridiculous score of 0,95% given to our candidate,” said Ayachi Hammami, spokesperson for a group of left-wing movements in a so-called “democratic initiative”, to which Halouani’s party belongs.

“These results are an insult to Tunisians’ intelligence and represent a failure rather than a victory for the regime,” Hammami said, adding that the party is considering taking the matter before the Constitutional Council.

Two opposition parties that boycotted the vote also denounced the elections as a farce.

“The figures released are characteristic of a totalitarian and monolithic regime,” said Nejib Chebbi, head of the Progressive Democratic Party.

Mustapha Benjaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, described Ben Ali’s score as “surreal” and said the elections marked “a missed opportunity” for the country.

But Mohamed Bouchiha, another presidential candidate who stood for the Popular Unity Party and who essentially backed Ben Ali’s re-election bid, said he was satisfied with his score of 3,78%. The remaining presidential candidate, Mounir El Beji of the Social Liberal Party, won 0,79%.

“The result is proof that we have an important place in politics and allowed us to break the 99% taboo linked to the outcome of previous elections,” said Bouchiha, who is related to the president’s wife.

Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, also dominated the legislative elections on Sunday, winning 152 seats in the 189-seat Parliament, according to official results. The remaining seats went to five opposition parties.

In a bid to ensure plurality, the ruling party by law cannot hold more than 80% of seats in Parliament and the opposition is ensured at least 20%.

Although rights groups in Tunisia and abroad had denounced the elections as being rigged in advance, Ben Ali’s government insisted that it had gone to great lengths to ensure transparency.

Ten observers from the Arab League who oversaw the elections said late on Sunday that they had noted no flagrant irregularities.

“According to preliminary information we found no serious irregularities, just some logistical problems that do not affect the credibility of the polls,” said Ahmed Ben Helli, head of the observer mission.

However, Hammami, Chebbi and others noted widespread violations and witnesses reported seeing voters illegally casting ballots for neighbours or friends. In one case, a man was seen by this reporter at a polling station with five electoral cards. He said he was voting for his entire family.

Ben Ali swept to power in 1987 after ousting president-for-life Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup. He has since maintained a tight control over the press and prevented any real dissent, with human rights leaders subjected to sustained government harassment, according to rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Critics say the country escaped the reproaches heaped on other repressive regimes in the area because its allies—in Europe and the United States—tend to focus on Tunisia’s sound economic performance and its success in containing radical Islamic activism.—Sapa-AFP

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