One of Africa’s longest-serving leaders is poised to extend his 22-year rule as Tunisia goes to the polls today.
There is little doubt the winner will be President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali although other candidates are taking part. Many in Tunisia credit the veteran leader with making the country one of the most prosperous in the region. “Personally, I hope and I am confident that President Ben Ali will win because he has given ample proof he has lived up to his promises,” said academic Sadok Bouhlila. But human rights groups say Tunisia has only a veneer of democracy. Look at pre-election media coverage they say, with vast differences between the space given to the president and his main rival. A report is used to back up this claim, in which 97.22 percent of space allocated by the press is said to have gone to Ben Ali. This is compared to 0.22 percent for challenger Ahmed Ibrahim. Ben Ali rejects accusations that he stifles free speech. The ubiquitous face of Tunisia, with his portrait on practically every shop and public building, he won last time round in 2004 with more than 94 percent of the vote. He has pledged more democracy, to reduce unemployment and increase incomes. Critics are not convinced by his record. Patrick Baudouin of the International Federation for Human Rights said: “22 years on, when you compare the reality of the country to the promises made, you can see that none of his promises have been kept and that President Ben Ali has done the exact opposite of what he promised to do.” Internationally, Ben Ali is seen as a staunch ally in the West’s fight against Islamist militants, winning praise from Europe and the United States.