October 26, 2009 / 1:13 AM / 10 years ago

Tunisian president wins fifth term in office

TUNIS (Reuters) - President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has won a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s presidential election, the state news agency said on Monday.

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila (L) greet a woman as they arrive to cast their ballots in Tunis October 25, 2009. REUTERS/Presidential Handout

One opposition party called Sunday’s vote a missed opportunity to move the North African country toward democracy, echoing accusations by international human rights groups that the campaign took place in an atmosphere of repression.

Ben Ali, who is 73 and has been in power for 22 years, has rejected those allegations and warned that anyone spreading lies to damage the country’s image will be prosecuted.

Many voters credit him with turning Tunisia, which attracts millions of foreign tourists each summer, into a stable and relatively prosperous country in a region that suffers from poverty and political turmoil.

His winning margin was down slightly compared with the 94.4 percent he received in the last election five years ago, a dip that may help deflect foreign criticism that the latest race was tilted in his favor.

Ben Ali has established Tunisia as a moderate voice in the Arab world and Western governments view it as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

Tunisia’s most prominent opposition figures did not take part in the election. Two of Ben Ali’s challengers on the ballot rarely criticize the president and the third acknowledged during the campaign that he could not win.

“The regime has missed another opportunity to carry out a democratic transition in Tunisia,” said Rachid Kechana, deputy Secretary-General of the opposition PDP party, which boycotted the election.

“The election was meaningless and the results confirm that,” he told Reuters.

EUROPEAN TIES

Ben Ali’s RCD ruling party won 75 percent of the seats in a parliamentary vote held simultaneously on Sunday, the official news agency TAP reported, quoting official results.

The Interior Ministry, which oversaw the voting, is expected to formally announce the outcome of both elections later on Monday.

Tunisia is especially sensitive to criticism of its democracy record because it is expected to apply to the European Union next year for “advanced status” — which could give it preferential trade terms and boost its international standing.

Almost all voters who spoke to Reuters reporters on polling day said they had backed Ben Ali.

“He is the savior of our country,” said 50-year-old Nejia Azouzi as she cast her ballot in the capital on Sunday.

The Tunisian president came to power in 1987 when doctors declared his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, unfit to rule after more than 30 years in power.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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