Tunisians vote for new president, result 'almost certain'

International rights groups say the government has ensured a landslide victory by harassing the opposition.

Tunisians vote for new president, result 'almost certain'
Tunisians voted on Sunday in an election almost certain to hand a new term to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the 73-year-old who has run the North African country for more than two decades.

International rights groups say the government has ensured a landslide victory by harassing the opposition, an allegation Ben Ali said was part of a campaign of "lies" by opponents.

Ben Ali ousted Tunisia's first elected president since independence from France, Habib Bourguiba, for senility in 1987. At every vote since then, his opponents have cried fraud over the staggering scale of Ben Ali's win.

In the last elections in 2004, Ben Ali was returned to office with 94.4 percent of the vote, while his RCD won an overwhelming majority in parliament.

Tunisians are also electing members of parliament in Sunday's poll.

By 2:00 p.m. (1300 GMT), turnout was 75.29 percent, Tunisia's TAP official news agency reported.

The Tunisian government is sensitive about foreign criticism of the vote because it is expected to apply to the European Union next year for "advanced status" -- which could give it preferential trade deals and boost its international standing.

In a television address on Saturday evening, Ben Ali said the election was free and fair but that some people were deliberately trying to damage Tunisia's image.

"The law will be applied ... with rigour against anyone who spreads doubts or accusations about the integrity of the electoral process without providing hard proof," Ben Ali said.

He issued the warning after human rights groups alleged the vote was taking place in an atmosphere of repression. The opposition has accused police of beating up activists.

"Elections will be free and fair in Tunisia only when the authorities stop muzzling opposition candidates, journalists and dissidents," Sarah Leah Whitson, of New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

With most Tunisians in no doubt about the outcome of the vote, campaigning was low-key. "Few people are talking about this (election)," one diplomat told Reuters. "They are not interested. For them, it is not an event."

Tunisia's most prominent opposition figures are not taking part in the election and of Ben Ali's three challengers on the ballot paper, two rarely criticise the president and the third has acknowledged he cannot win.

In polling stations, colour-coded voting papers were stacked on tables ready for people to take into the voting booth.

In two polling stations in Tunis visited by Reuters reporters, the stack of red papers for Ben Ali was much smaller than the others -- a clear sign he was getting more votes.

Last Mod: 25 Ekim 2009, 17:55
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