Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 13:50 UK

Tunisia's image belies poll control

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

By Rana Jawad
BBC News, Tunis

Tunisia has successfully marketed itself as one of the most liberal countries in North Africa - a top tourist destination and modern society which has staved off Islamist militancy.

But for many Tunisians preparing to vote in Sunday's elections this image is far removed from their reality.

View of central Tunis
Tunisia is often seen from the outside as a model of prosperity and stability

Incumbent President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's bid for a fifth term in office has officially been dubbed "historic".

Others would simply describe it as "expected" - and in the absence of any overt inclusion of the opposition, the playing field can hardly be described as level.

The number of posters, billboards and banners of the incumbent head-of-state might be lower than in neighbouring countries like Libya and Algeria.

There is the occasional, easy-to-miss, poster line-up of other presidential hopefuls.

But the one dominant face staring down at pedestrians across the country is that of Mr Ben-Ali.

The ruling Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD) has been in power since independence in 1956, and Mr Ben-Ali has won four landslide victories.

In 2002, a popular referendum to amend the constitution scrapped the presidential term limits that were once introduced by President Ben-Ali himself.

Foreign money

In Tunis's higher Institute for Music studies, a 22-year-old young man declares he will not vote because "the election is pre-determined" as his friend pokes fun at how President Ben Ali always wins with almost a "100% of the vote".

Supporter of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Mr Ben Aliís supporters say he has overseen economic development

A similar sentiment can be heard in President Ben Ali's hometown, Sousse.

"I am not at all interested by these elections, and nobody seems to be really," says one resident.

"As the results are already known and the opposition is unknown, life continues as usual."

That is a view shared by many Tunisians who are unhappy with their country's path down the president-for-life lane, a path often travelled by Arab and African leaders.

Many of the country's youth are apathetic.

The president does have a support base ranging from students to businessmen and is credited with ushering in an era of relative political stability and economic development.

In recent years, Tunisia has been awash with foreign investment. Official figures show there is $30bn (£18bn) worth of cash from abroad being pumped into development projects.

France is Tunisia's largest single trading partner and the UK's BG Group - a natural gas entity - is the largest foreign investor in the country.

It is a country that has progressed despite having fewer natural resources than its regional neighbours.

'They're watching'

But Ahmed Ounaies, a retired Tunisian ambassador who identifies himself as an independent, says support for the RCD is partly based on "interest, calculation and fear".

A few media outlets look at human rights in Tunisia from the tarnished point of view of some Tunisian opposition [members]
Justice Minister Beshir Tekkari

"It is hardly a popular party, it is rather a hegemonic party in the historical and political sense," he says.

Many Tunisians are angry at what they describe as the gradual strangling of freedoms over the last decade, and the country is awash with people who are critical of the government's policies and the presidency.

But people are afraid of talking to the media, particularly in public; most will explain as much when approached for their opinion, because - as one student put it - "they're watching".

Others will eventually give in to speak on the record after very long negotiations on ensuring anonymity.

Officials say reporters can talk to anyone, though smartly dressed "watchers" shadow foreign journalists.

There is an encyclopaedic archive of reports on state violations of press freedoms, and moves against overly vocal critics, human rights advocates, Islamists and unfavourable opposition groups.

Officials say this gives a distorted image.

"A few media outlets look at human rights in Tunisia from the tarnished point of view of some Tunisian opposition [members] who failed to present a political agenda," Justice Minister Beshir Tekkari told reporters on Thursday.

Key opponent 'excluded'

Yet the opposition complaints continue.

Last year the Tunisian parliament passed legislation amending the electoral law, stipulating that only candidates who have been party leaders for a minimum of two years can run in presidential elections.

Presidential candidate Ahmed Ibrahim in Tunis, 20 October 2009
[The government] is preventing me from getting public platforms to speak to my supporters
Presidential candidate Ahmed Ibrahim

This excluded Nejib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party - one of the best-known political figures and arguably the only one who could have injected some suspense into the outcome of the forthcoming vote.

Mr Chebbi believes he was personally targeted.

"The amendment was a reaction to the decision of my party to make me a candidate," he says.

The change was announced by President Ben Ali a month after the PDP nominated Mr Chebbi.

Even though he has clearance to run, Ahmed Ibrahim of the Ettajdid (Renewal) Party says his movements have been restricted and he has not been allowed to campaign properly.

"[The government] is preventing me from getting public platforms to speak to my supporters," he said.

"The state TV changed my air time slot… they're trying to censor my election statement."

Tunisia's Minister of Reform, Zouheir Mdheffer, rejected such accusations, saying Ettajdid was at times in violation of electoral and media campaign laws.

In any case, Mr Ibrahim is not a formidable opponent and his party has no illusions about his chances of success.

In a public address earlier this year, President Ben Ali said he was committed to making sure the elections took place "in a climate of transparency".

And in the weeks ahead of Sunday's poll, the government formed its own election monitoring group - though the president appointed its head.

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