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Going Gingerly Into Democratic Era. TUNISIANS TO THE POLLS

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1989


TUNISIA is poised to take its first hesitant steps toward genuine democratic rule, more than three decades after gaining independence. Next Sunday's national elections, expected to be the most open ever, are seen here as a showcase of the ``new era'' in Tunisian politics ushered in by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, following his ouster of Tunisia's aging patriarch, Habib Bourguiba, 17 months ago.

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Yet as opposition parties make last-ditch efforts to woo Tunisia's voters, they are finding attachments to 30 years of one-party rule hard to overcome. Despite new reforms, few here expect to see the ruling party ousted.

``No one doubts that it will be a landslide,'' comments one Western diplomat in Tunis of the electoral prospects of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, President Ben Ali's ruling party, known by its French acronym as the ``RCD.''

Voters will elect a president and 141 members of the Chamber of Deputies, or parliament, which has been monopolized by Bourguiba's party since Tunisia won its independence from France in 1956.

In all, six parties will compete. Unofficial lists of candidates will also be submitted in several of Tunisia's 24 electoral districts by independents backed mainly by Islamic fundamentalists, whose party has not been formally recognized by the government.

In a country where every politician is an alumnus of the ruling RCD, few are quibbling over matters of ideology. Instead, Sunday's election is seen as a kind of shakedown cruise for future voyages on Tunisia's new democratic seas.

``Our goal is not to win seats,'' says Ahmed Mestiri, a former government minister who now heads the opposition Social Democratic Party. ``Our goal is to abolish the single-party system.''

After ending Bourguiba's 33-year reign in November 1987, Mr. Ben Ali, a former interior minister with a tough-guy reputation among human rights groups, suddenly bathed Tunisia with political freedoms.

The press has been unshackled, opposition parties have been legalized, Tunisia's life presidency has been abolished, and 5,000 political prisoners have been released in stages, including many leaders of an outlawed Muslim fundamentalist group.

The reforms are widely credited with having saved Tunisia from the kind of bloody rioting that swept through Algeria last October.

``There was total euphoria, not because we knew Ben Ali or loved him, but because a period of total despair was over,'' recalls Tunisian journalist Tanya Matthews of the reaction to the end of the Bourguiba era.

But despite the enormous personal popularity Ben Ali has since developed, opposition politicians complain that his efforts to promote political pluralism in Tunisia are being systematically undermined by conservatives within his own ruling party.

Holdovers from the Bourguiba era, who are gradually being replaced by Ben Ali, are frequently compared here to the apparatchiks who have sought to undermine the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The result has been a range of petty restrictions that have made it difficult to mount an effective opposition. For example, the government typically grants permission to use assembly halls only at the last minute, making it difficult to publicize political meetings. Megaphones are prohibited, making outdoor rallies impossible.