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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Tunisia's lacklustre election
By Pascale Harter
BBC, Tunis

The wide, tree-lined boulevards of Tunisia's capital are bustling with shoppers.

There's no crackle of suspense in the air, no debate at the street-side newspaper stands.

Tunis street scene - election campaign posters
No surprises are expected in Tunisia's forthcoming elections
In fact, Sunday's presidential and legislative elections are barely making the front page - because every Tunisian knows who will win.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally have been in power for 17 years, and exercise almost complete control over Tunisian politics.

Landslide victories of more than 99% of the vote have earned the president criticism from abroad, and calls by Western politicians such as US President George Bush to implement urgent democratic reforms.

Of the few legalised opposition parties, two have called for a boycott of the presidential poll.

Others simply don't seem to have their heart in the job, with presidential candidates calling on Tunisians not to vote for them, but to re-elect the president instead.

'Facade of democracy'

Just two days before polling, Tunisia's main opposition party - so weak it doesn't have a single seat in parliament - pulled out of elections.

President Ben Ali will win the election because of all he has done for Tunisia, the spectacular development and investment he has brought here
Ali Chaouch
Ruling party secretary general

"This is a one-party state with a facade of democracy," said Democratic Progressive Party leader Najib Chebbi.

"And if we take part in the elections we will be legitimising this false process."

Ali Chaouch, Secretary General of the ruling RCD says it's just sour grapes.

"President Ben Ali will win the election because of all he has done for Tunisia, the spectacular development and investment he has brought here," he says.

It's true that a gleaming industrial park of Tunisian-owned manufacturing plants and businesses line the motorway from the airport to the capital.

Two thirds of Tunisians own their own home, and one of Africa's only tramways winds its way through the fashionable streets of the Mediterranean capital. In 1995 Jacques Chirac spoke of the "Tunisian miracle".

Tunisia implemented its own version of the French secularism law, banning the wearing of headscarves in schools and the public administration back in 1981 without much problem.

After the attack on the synagogue in Djerba in 2002, the threat of the Islamic bogeymen, appears to have been vanquished.

'Huge development'

It's a peaceful, stable, well-developed oasis in an otherwise troubled continent. But at what cost?

Hamma Hammami - leader of banned communist party
Tunisians are afraid to speak out
Hamma Hammami
Communist Party leader
At a Ben Ali campaign trail event for Tunisia's scientific community, people told me the president would get their vote.

"I am a scientific researcher and I am happy for everything Ben Ali has done. He has put huge investment into national scientific research," one woman told me.

"We Tunisians vote for President Ben Ali because he has really developed our country. For the last 17 years we've seen huge development in Tunisia."

"I'm voting for Ben Ali because of his past record. We're sure of what he's done in the past and so we can be sure of what he'll do in the future," said one man.

But they all preferred not to give me their names.

It's not wise to express a political opinion in Tunisia. On the streets people are reluctant to talk at all.

"Everything is fine," a young man told me, sitting at a cafe with his friends.

But once the microphone was off, he told a different story: "We are not free to say anything here. The economy is all right, life is all right, but we cannot speak."

"Tunisians are afraid to speak out," says Hamma Hammami, leader of the banned Communist Party.

"There are plainclothes police everywhere and if you are not for Ben Ali, you are considered against him. You will not get a loan at the bank, they will stop you from getting electricity at your home, you might be arrested on a trumped-up driving offence, or just thrown in prison."

Mr Hammami himself has been imprisoned for his ideas, and says he was tortured there.

'Big joke'

Amnesty International has expressed concern over the use of intimidation, arbitrary arrest and torture by the Tunisian police.

But is it, as some analysts claim, just the chattering classes who are bothered?

Poster of President Ben Ali
Ben Ali still seems to have reserves of popularity to see him through
In the sweltering heat of a packed night-time rally of the opposition Attajdid party, one man in his 20s told me anonymously: "I'm here to listen to things Tunisians want to talk about but can't. If I could speak freely perhaps I would vote for Ben Ali, but I am not given that choice."

The lack of freedom and democracy seems to be the most frequent complaint about what opposition supporters called "the regime of Ben Ali".

But some also had their doubts about Tunisia's much touted economic development too.

"It's a big joke," one man told me. "It's a lie that the economy is going well. I graduated in 1996 and I've been unemployed ever since."

Away from the polished streets, the tramways and expensive boutiques, there is growing unemployment and Tunisians earning an average wage of $350 a month are struggling to keep up with the costs of living in what has become a European city, with European prices.

The textile exports on which Tunisia depends are about to be undercut by a preferential trade agreement between Europe and China, which could result in tens of thousands of people losing their jobs.

With pro-Ben Ali flags and pictures hung outside cafes and businesses it looks as though Ben Ali still has reserves of popularity to see him through tough times ahead.

But with ever-watchful plainclothes police on every street corner, and debate in the free press deeply stifled, it's very hard to tell just how genuine that support is.

Q&A: Tunisia votes
23 Oct 04  |  Middle East
Timeline: Tunisia
12 Aug 04  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Tunisia
07 Jul 04  |  Country profiles

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