Tunisia Tested by Vote's Result; Referendum Revamps Rule, Redefines role.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: MIDDLE EAST)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

Tunisia Tested by Vote's Result; Referendum Revamps Rule, Redefines role.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: MIDDLE EAST)


Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TUNIS, Tunisia - During the next few months, critical for Tunisia's economy, the government of this North African country faces some crucial questions about its political system, known here as "presidential democracy."

The stakes include Tunisia's relations with its trading partners, its aspirations for closer ties with European democracies and its role as the leading Arab country in the war against terrorism.

The questions asked in Western chanceries stem from the May 26 referendum that revamped the Tunisia Constitution, created an additional chamber in the parliament and - above all - just about guaranteed two more five-year terms for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He has been power since 1987.

According to official figures, 96.15 percent of Tunisia's voters went to the polls, casting 3,271,198 valid ballots of which 99.61 percent were in favor of the reforms proposed by Mr. Ben Ali.

Hailed by Tunisian officials as "a victory for democracy and a triumph of patriots," the referendum was described as a sham by the regime's opponents and the outcome "unbelievable" and "insolent" by some European diplomats.

Mr. Ben Ali, who 14 years ago removed from power the aging and senile "President-for-life" Habib Bourguiba, was last re-elected in 1999 with 99.44 percent of the vote, a margin of victory generally ridiculed by media in France, Tunisia's former colonial master.

The May 26th referendum - the first in the history of this country of nearly 10 million people - took place a little more than a month after a suicide bombing outside the historic El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Blamed on Islamic fundamentalists, the blast killed 15 persons and injured 30 - reminding the country that despite stringent security measures introduced by Mr. Ben Ali, Tunisia is not immune from terrorism.

While Tunisia's Western friends appear considerably confused by the figures of the referendum, Mr. Ben Ali's political supporters claim his continuing presence at the country's helm is essential for the survival of his economic and social policies that have given Tunisia an unprecedented level of prosperity, social services and education.

In recent months, Tunisia's economic health has shown some strain, requiring budgetary belt-tightening.

Five small parties, the "legal opposition," urged their followers to take part in the referendum as an "expression of the democratic process." The vocal Ettajdid party, which boycotted the voting, was ignored by the officially sanctioned press and was denied radio and television time.

The voting was supervised by members of Mr. Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), a party that has dominated Tunisia since its 1956 independence from France, changing names and ideological programs according to the requirements of the president. …

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