Ali wins fifth mandate in Tunisia

TUNIS: Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been re-elected for a fifth, five-year term, with 89.28 percent of votes, the Interior Ministry announced at dawn Monday.

Though still a landslide, it was Ben Ali's lowest score since he took power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987 that authorities dub "The Change." He was last re-elected in 2004 with more than 94 percent of votes — a drop from his previous victories, which fluctuated between 99.2 and 99.7 percent.

His latest score reflected the increased space allowed to the opposition. Runner-up Mohamed Bouchiha won 5.01 percent of votes, and Ahmed Inoubli 3.80 percent. Both candidates were viewed as largely cosmetic opposition. The third candidate, Ahmed Brahim of the Ettajdid, or change movement, who presented himself in the campaign as "a real opposition candidate," scored 1.57 percent of votes.

The results were to be made final later in the morning by the Interior Ministry. They took into account Tunisians voting at home and abroad. The participation rate was 89.45 percent, authorities said, with 4.7 million voting out of 5.29 million registered voters.

Tunisians also chose 214 lawmakers for the lower house of parliament in Sunday's presidential and legislative elections. Ben Ali's Constitutional and Democratic Rally, or RCD, which has been continuously in power since Tunisia's independence in 1956, won 161 seats. A sprinkling of small opposition and independent parties shared the remaining 53.

Hard-line opposition groups and Islamists are outlawed and did not take part in the elections.

At 73, Ben Ali was running for his last mandate under the current constitution, which sets the age limit for a presidential candidate at 75.

He set the tone for voting day by taking the unusual step of going on national television late Saturday to attack any Tunisian who suggests the elections are unbalanced or fraudulent.

Twenty-six Tunisian electoral observers, 16 African Union observers and 11 people invited by Tunisian embassies in Europe and the Arab world were on hand to monitor several thousand polling stations.

All said the voting had gone well, and praised Tunisia for its strides toward democracy — despite widespread criticism from human rights groups and the nascent opposition that the Tunisian regime stifles liberties.

Many voters see continuity as a good thing in this Mediterranean vacation haven, a strong U.S. and European ally and a relatively secular, moderate and stable outpost in the Arab world.

Even Ben Ali's opponents largely acknowledge the results he has achieved in this small country that lacks any significant natural resource.

Tunisia is expecting 3-percent growth in gross domestic product this year despite global recession; the country's poverty rate has dropped below 4 percent of the population; and international benchmarks show Tunisia is a regional model in terms of literacy, social welfare and the role women play in society. But rights groups deplore the overbearing police presence, and general absence of any real freedom of expression or assembly.