TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia votes in a presidential election on Sunday that is almost certain to hand a new term to Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, president for the past 22 years and a staunch ally in the West’s fight against Islamist militants.
Ben Ali’s opponents accuse him of suppressing dissent, but many voters credit the 73-year-old with making the North African country one of the most prosperous in the region and overseeing political stability for a generation of Tunisians.
“It’s simply that someone you know is better than someone you don’t know,” said Hayet, a 45-year-old woman in the capital, Tunis, where buildings are adorned with pictures of the president and banners urging people to give him a new mandate.
Europe and the United States have praised Ben Ali for helping track down radical Islamists operating abroad and for containing militants at home, especially after the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue in 2002 which killed 21 people.
Tunisians will also be voting for a new parliament on Sunday. Ben Ali’s party holds 80 percent of the seats and is expected to easily retain its majority.
Launching his campaign, Ben Ali promised that if re-elected he would reduce unemployment and aim for a 40 percent increase in per capita income, which is already among the highest in North Africa. Tourism is the mainstay of Tunisia’s economy.
“No Tunisian family will remain without a job or source of income for at least one of its members by the end of 2014,” Ben Ali said earlier this month.
He also promised more democracy. “The coming stage will see a greater support from the state for political parties and the press and media in general,” he said.
A former military officer, Ben Ali came to power in 1987 when doctors declared then-president Habib Bourguiba senile and unfit to rule. He won 94.4 percent of the vote in the last election in 2004.
He is now one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders but appears in good health and keeps a busy schedule of appearances, often accompanied by his wife, Leila Ben Ali.
Analysts say the only credible opponent among his three challengers in Sunday’s vote is Ahmed Brahim, the candidate of the opposition Renewal, or Ettajdid, Movement.
Human rights groups say Tunisia has only a veneer of democracy and ruthlessly clamps down on dissent — allegations denied by the government.
Ben Ali has come under domestic and foreign pressure to show more political openness in Sunday’s election.
His opponents are sceptical that is going to happen. Opposition challenger Brahim accused the authorities of preventing him from holding election rallies, handing out leaflets or putting up campaign posters.
Even before campaigning started, Tunisia’s main opposition force, the Democratic Progressive Party, announced it was boycotting all elections, saying it did not want to participate in meaningless votes.
“There is nothing to suggest that there are elections in this country,” said Fathi Touzri, who ran unsuccessfully in the last parliamentary elections as an independent.
“This election was supposed to show the maturity of the Tunisians, but it appears to be a missed opportunity,” he said.