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President set for re-election as Tunisians vote.

Byline: Reuters

TUNIS: Tunisians vote on Sunday in a 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 over two decades.

International rights groups say the government has ensured victory by harassing the opposition, an allegation Ben Ali said was part of a campaign of lies by opponents who were betraying their own country.

Western governments view mainly Muslim Tunisia as one of their closest allies in the Arab world and a moderate bulwark against Islamist extremism.

At home, many voters credit Ben Ali with making Tunisia -- which attracts millions of European tourists each summer -- one of the most prosperous and stable states in a region that suffers from poverty and political turmoil.

"I will vote on Sunday for Ben Ali. We trust him because he has honestly done everything he promised," said an unemployed man who gave his name as Aymen. "It is true I m unemployed, but there is no alternative to Ben Ali."

The Tunisian president, who came to power in 1987 when doctors declared his predecessor unfit to rule, won the last election five years ago with 94.4 percent of the vote.

In a television address on Saturday evening, he said the election campaign "has been conducted within the framework of the law and democratic principles."

"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," he said.

Ben Ali has three opponents in Sunday s race. Two of them, Mohamed Bouchiha of the Popular Union and Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist party, rarely criticise the government. The third, Ahmed Brahim, head of the Renewal Movement, only received permission to campaign actively a week before the vote.

Dotted through the capital are stands with space for posters of the four candidates. Most have only three posters, with the space for Brahim empty.

"I am sure that I am not going to win," Brahim told about 400 supporters on Friday at his only campaign rally in the capital.

Tunisia s most prominent opposition figure, Nejib Chebbi, is boycotting the election on Sunday, in which voters will also be electing members of parliament. New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch said the vote was taking place in an atmosphere of repression.

"Elections will be free and fair in Tunisia only when the authorities stop muzzling opposition candidates, journalists and dissidents," Sarah Leah Whitson, the group s Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

Muscat Press and Publishing House SAOC 2009

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Oct 25, 2009
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