A referendum in Tunisia, held on May 26 to approve amendments to the constitution proposed by president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, secured 99.52 percent of the votes cast. This result makes it possible for Ben Ali to stay in office until 2014, and gives him immunity from prosecution for life. No wonder Ben Ali — who has been in office since 1987 , when he seized power from the ageing Habib Bourguiba — is being described as “president for life” by Tunisians and foreign journalists alike. In Algeria parliamentary elections on May 30, boycotted by most of the electorate, restored to power a party favoured by the military-backed regime of president Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika. The National Liberation Front (FNL) gained 199 seats out of 389, compared to the 64 seats it had won in the previous election. Both polls involved massive fraud, and were held largely to project a facade of democracy. But despite the fraud — denounced by human-rights agencies and opposition figures, western governments were either silent or supportive, partly because both Ben Ali and Bouteflika are enthusiastic supporters of the US-led “war on terrorism”.
Under the amendments Tunisians were invited to vote on, a presidential candidate is allowed to run for more than three terms, while the age at which he can stand for election is to be raised from 70 to 75. The president will also be immune to prosecution not just while in office but also after retiring. This means that 65-year-old president Ben Ali can run for further terms and that if, for instance, he loses the 2004 presidential poll and retires, he will still be immune to prosecution. But if he continues to ‘win’ he can remain in office until 2014. It was Ben Ali himself who first introduced the three-term limit, when he seized power in 1987.
The Tunisian president signed the new amendments into law on June 1 and issued a communique expressing his “satisfaction over the maturity and the high level of conscience shown by the Tunisian people.” Ben Ali, who is not exactly renowned for his modesty, apparently believes that winning less than 99 percent of the votes cast is below his dignity. In the last presidential election (1999), he obtained 99 percent. In this he even beats Egypt’s president Husni Mubarak, who is content with securing the usual 98 percent, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, of 97 percent fame. Ben Ali is also noted for the opportunistic timing of elections. Human-rights activists have accused him of timing the current referendum to exploit Tunisia’s support of the West’s “war on terrorism”, saying that he used a similar ploy during the Gulf war in 1990-91 to get rid of the al-Nahda party and the communists, who were his only political opposition at the time.
According to Sihem Binsedrane, spokeswoman of a human-rights group that is the victim of official harassment in Tunisia, the referendum “is completely false. It represents the concentration of power in one man who becomes unaccountable... he becomes a dictator with all the power of a dictator” (interview, May 27). But Binsedrane (of the Conseil National pour la Liberties en Tunisie) was not the only human-rights activist to attack the fraudulent nature of the referendum. Souhair Belhassen, the vice-president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, stunned by the audacity of the president in claiming to have won 99.52 percent of the vote, dismissed the referendum as an “indecent masquerade” in a newspaper interview three days later.
Another secular Tunisian organisation that has condemned the absurdity of announcing such high figures is the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, whose secretary-general, Dr Mustapha Ben Jaafar, spoke to Le Monde of Paris. “This is a missed opportunity,” he said. “Democratisation has been put on a back burner for the Tunisians, who, to judge from the referendum result, seem like creatures from another planet.” Contrasting this sharp comment with the lack of criticism from abroad, Le Monde noted that France (Tunisia’s main political and trading partner) was the worst offender in this respect, citing the refusal of Bernard Valero, deputy spokesman for the foreign office, to comment on the results. Valero said that he had no particular comment to make on “an internal Tunisian political development”, adding that relations between Paris and Tunis are “close”, and that France’s “concern” is to help Tunisia to “face up to the challenge of modernisation.”
The French, and other Western backers of Ben Ali, knew that the results are unreal, as the ruling party — the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) — controlled not only the counting of votes but also the entire referendum procedure. As Le Monde pointed out, RCD members were “almost the only people supervising the poll, along with administrative staff who support the party”. Ben Ali, who knows well his debt to the RCD, of which he is secretary-general, thanked it in public for having “assumed the role incumbent on it to support the choice for the future.” He went on to claim that the verdict “strengthens the foundations of the rule of law, and consolidates the protection of freedoms and human rights.” His statement is based on the official figures: that the constitutional amendments were approved by 99.52 percent of the voters on a turnout of 99.8 percent. The turnout was in fact widely reported as poor, even by Arab newspapers that approved of Ben Ali’s “respect for democratic choice”.
The Algerian parliamentary elections were not as important as the Tunisian referendum, in the sense that Algerian legislators have little weight in the decision-making process, which is dominated by the Algerian army generals. Not only do the parties and presidential candidates backed by the generals win elections, but when undesirable candidates – such as the Islamic National Front (FIS) in 1992 – emerge as the victors, the results are cancelled and the winners banned. In the parliamentary elections of 1997, for instance, the National Democratic Rally (RND) – especially created by the army to contest the elections because the FLN was thought at the time to be too thoroughly discredited – won most of the votes. And in the presidential election of 1998 Bouteflika, the army’s candidate, emerged as the victor. In the current parliamentary election the generals have clearly transferred their support from the RND – which has been totally discredited since 1997 – to the FLN. Not surprisingly, the RND has won only 48 seats, down from 156 in the last elections.
The Algerian elections may not be as important as the Tunisian referendum, but they are significant in the sense that they demonstrate that nothing has changed in the country’s decision-making process, that Islamic movements will continue to be excluded (FIS has been banned since 1992), and that Western governments are happy to back half-hearted attempts to disguise a dictatorship as democratic rule, particularly when that dictatorship supports the “war on terrorism”. The US government, for instance, welcomed the elections as a democratic step forward, while the French foreign ministry said that it would study the results before commenting, having said earlier that the poll was a “vital development” in Algeria’s political life. In the US Richard Boutcher, a state department spokesman, said that his country welcomed the elections and backed this “democratic development” in Algeria. Most Algerians boycotted the elections; in the Kabylie Berber region the turnout was only 2 percent.
But it is not only Western countries that have supported the electoral farce in Tunisia and Algeria. Most Muslim countries, where secular elites monopolise power and indulge in similar democratic pretences, have also expressed their support. But if the Western and secular ‘Muslim’ governments believe that they have won the war on Islamic movements in Tunisia and Algeria, they are only deceiving themselves. Most Algerians and Tunisians are angered by the fraud and the west’s support for it; Islamic activists, although they are excluded, can only gain by this.