Freedom in the World
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali easily won a fifth term in the tightly controlled October 2009 general elections, while the ruling party captured three-quarters of the seats in the lower house of parliament. Throughout the year, the authorities continued to harass, arrest, and imprison journalists and bloggers, human rights activists, and political opponents of the government.
Some political prisoners have been freed in recent years, and Ben Ali has stated that the press and opposition should feel free to promote their ideas. However, the president’s critics still face beatings and incarceration, and even political activists who are released from jail often have their movements monitored and restricted.
Tunisia is not an electoral democracy. President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has exercised authoritarian rule since seizing power in a coup in 1987. Beginning in 1989, he won five consecutive five-year terms in tightly controlled elections, either running unopposed or easily defeating token challengers. A 2002 referendum removed the constitution’s three-term limit for the presidency and raised the maximum age for presidential candidates from 70 to 75. A package of amendments in 2008 lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 and effectively barred presidential candidates other than the elected leaders of political parties who had served at least two years or those who obtained nominations from at least 30 lawmakers or local councilors. Both before and after the 2009 elections, the authorities cracked down on media outlets and human rights activists to minimize public expressions of dissent.
Tunisian authorities have been fairly progressive on social policy, especially in the area of women’s rights. The country ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in late 2008, and women in Tunisia enjoy more social freedoms and legal rights than their counterparts in other Arab countries. The personal status code grants women equal rights in divorce, and children born to Tunisian mothers and foreign fathers are automatically granted citizenship, which is not the case in many neighboring countries.