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Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Tunisia leader gears up for fourth term
By North Africa correspondent David Bamford

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is the dominant figure of Tunisian politics.

As prime minister and security strongman during the late 1980s, Mr Ben Ali led a bloodless coup in 1987 to oust the increasingly senile president-for-life Habib Bourguiba.

Political intimidation by the government is intense and (opposition) party leaders never directly criticise the head of stat

Mr Ben Ali was declared the new president and immediately introduced a constitutional change intended to prevent any reoccurrence of the ailing Bourguiba years.

The change limited any future president - including Mr Ben Ali himself - to a maximum of three electoral terms of five years each.

But the Tunisian Government has now signalled its determination to overturn this and allow Mr Ben Ali to stand for a fourth term.

The central committee of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) has called for Mr Ben Ali to stand again.

And with the RCD dominating the National Assembly, the constitutional reverse will face little, if any, formal opposition.

This means that next year, the RCD Congress is likely to formally nominate Mr Ben Ali as the party's candidate for presidential elections due in 2004.

Dominant figure

Such is Mr Ben Ali's dominance on the Tunisian political scene that he claimed 99.4 per cent of the popular vote in the last presidential election in 1999, despite the participation of two opposition candidates.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia
President Ben Ali has been in power since 1987

The only political opponent to openly defy him is the head of the banned Islamist En-Nahdah movement, Rached Ghannouchi.

He was forced out of the country and since 1993 has lived in exile in London.

Although Tunisia has six opposition parties, political intimidation by the government is intense and party leaders never directly criticise the head of state.

The Ben Ali government is widely accused of interfering in the justice system, suppressing free speech and of abusing human rights.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the situation in Tunisia has worsened noticeably in 2001.

Criticism stifled

Although Tunisia has more that 150 newspapers and magazines, none that are published regularly express views critical of the Ben Ali administration.

Radio and TV is state controlled.

The magazine al-Mawqif, in its August edition, questioned whether President Ben Ali should be allowed a fourth term, but police confiscated the copies before they could reach the news stands.

The few who do speak out use Internet websites or foreign satellite television and radio broadcasts beamed to North Africa.

Sihem Bensedrine, spokeswoman for the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), was jailed for six weeks in June after taking part in a televised human rights debate on Tunisia broadcast from London.

She was released pending further court action but continues to suffer harassment and has been attacked by police.

See also:

27 Sep 01 | Middle East
Tunisian president's fourth term plan
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
Tunisia condemned for rights record
30 Jul 00 | Middle East
Tunisia human rights row
02 Feb 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Tunisia
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