Middle East Online (September 20, 2004)

Tunisia : Three opposition leaders enter presidential race, facing popular incumbent, Ben Ali receives endorsement of main organizations, unions, opposition parties.

TUNIS - Middle East Online

A Total of four candidates have officially registered with the Constitutional Council to run for President. Seven political parties out of eight have also announced their intent to filed candidates for Parliament. Both presidential and legislative elections will take place in Tunisia on October 24, 2004 .

Mr. Mohamed Halouani, a leftist professor, was Saturday the fourth presidential candidate to file his candidacy papers with the Constitutional Council.

Mr Halouani, a leading figure of "Ettajdid" party (former communist), said his candidacy will "truly present the opposition's" point of view.

The three other official candidacies have been filed since September 3rd by the incumbent, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is running for a new term in office, and two other opposition leaders, Mr Mohamed Bouchiha, secretary general of the Popular Unity Party, a left-of-center formation, and Mr Mounir Beji, the president of the Social Liberal Party, a liberal formation.

President Ben Ali has already received the endorsement of the country's main organizations and unions, including the general workers' union (the UGTT), the business federation (the UTICA ) and the national women's union (the UNFT). He has even received the support of two opposition parties, the Democratic Unionist Union, a pan-Arabist formation and the Social Democratic Movement, a social-liberal formation.

There is a wide consensus among national and domestic observers that President Ben Ali will win the elections by a landslide because of his popularity among Tunisian voters who credit him with the remarkable achievements their country was able to accomplish. Tunisia, a small North-African nation with limited natural resources, has achieved an average economic growth rate of abut 5 % in the last 15 years and its middle class grow to encompass about 80% of the population. Poverty has decreased to 4 % while demographic growth dropped to 1 %.

All candidates, in the presidential and legislative races, are guaranteed time-slots on public radio and television during the electoral campaign which is to start on October 10th. Considering the number or presidential hopefuls and the participation of no less than seven political parties in the legislative campaign, the hundreds of candidates are expected to present to voters a wide spectrum of ideas. "beyond the results of the vote, people here hope the campaign will help advance the democratic process even further," said a Tunisian political analyst.

To "jump-start" the democratization process, President Ben Ali has adopted a system of positive discrimination in favor of the opposition and women candidates. The electoral law guarantees a minimum of 20% of the seats to political parties that do not manage to win the majority of votes in the various electoral districts. Since the 1999 elections, that pre-set minimum has allowed five of the opposition parties (the MDS, the PUP, the UDU, Ettajiid and the PSL parties) to hold seats in the Chamber of Deputies, while the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) has held the majority of seats.

Women of Tunisia are very enthusiastic about the prospects of the next legislature accommodating a larger number of women MP's after the October 24th vote. Women hold today 11.5% of the seats in the Tunisian Parliament. That number could double after next elections based on the pledge made by President Ben Ali to put at least 20% of women candidates on the legislative slates of the RCD party, which he chairs and which is expected to carry the majority of seats in parliament.

"While others ponder the philosophy of reform, Ben Ali pragmatically leads his country in an incremental process of concrete democratization and societal change," said a Tunisian political analyst. "Everybody in Tunisia is aware that a lot remains to be done. But looking at the gathering storms everywhere else, Tunisians realistically count their blessings."