TUNIS — 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.
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.
MORE serious, the RCD is allowed to monopolize broadcast time on government-run radio and TV stations. In two of 24 electoral districts, opposition slates have been banned altogether.
``It's the silent campaign,'' complains an exasperated Mestiri, who adds that the government has done little to publicize the campaign or instruct a public untutored in the ways of democracy how and where to vote.
``From top to bottom they're not prepared to play the game of democracy,'' says Mr. Mestiri of the RCD's reluctant functionaries.
``We make a distinction between between Ben Ali, whom we have supported from the first day, and the party, which is composed of old members who violate all the new rules,'' adds Ismail Boulahia, another ranking official of the Social Democratic Party.
There are other reasons why the era of one-party rule is dying hard in Tunisia.
One is the kind of exaggerated adulation and deference to the president now transferred from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, which has proved the main legacy of years of paternal dictatorship. Even opposition leaders in this polite campaign are ill at ease criticizing the man whose party they would like to replace in parliament. None have chosen to challenge Ben Ali for the presidency.
``It's an attitude that springs from conditioned reflexes of the past. That's how they were made to behave by the old regime,'' notes Ms. Matthews. `It's a hard environment for democracy to thrive in.''
More tenacious is the extent to which lines between state and party remain blurred from the Bourguiba era. Especially in rural Tunisia, political patronage and privileges are dispensed by party functionaries rather than civil authorities, creating deep loyalties among local voters that put opposition parties at a huge competitive disadvantage.
In one instance, said by several Tunisian sources to be typical, a worker from a Tunis suburb was called in by the local police and ``instructed'' to vote for the RCD.
``They have a whole network,'' observes a candidate from one opposition party. ``We have no such network.''
Political observers say that, by raising doubts about the adequacy of Ben Ali's democratic reforms, too large a landslide could prove embarrassing to the RCD.
``They'll have to stuff the ballot boxes - for the other side,'' quips another Tunisian journalist. TUNISIA'S ROAD TO ELECTIONS Nov. 7, 1987: After 33 years in power, President-for-Life Habib Bourguiba is forced into retirement in a bloodless coup by Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who becomes President. Nov. 8: The new prime minister, Hedi Baccouche, forms a Cabinet that omits four ministers closely associated with Mr. Bourguiba. Dec. 5: Mr. Ben Ali frees 2,487 political prisoners. Dec. 25: The Chamber of Deputies, the country's parliament, abolishes the post of prosecutor-general and the state security court, used to prosecute Islamic fundamentalists. Feb. 28, 1988: To demonstrate a new, more democratic outlook, the ruling Destourian Socialist Party changes its name to Constitutional Democratic Rally. July 26: In another Cabinet reshuffle, more ministers appointed by Bourguiba are removed. Aug. 11: A change to the Constitution approved by the Chamber of Deputies abolishes the post of President-for-Life. Nov. 7: Ben Ali announces that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in April 1989, well ahead of schedule.