TUNISIAN voters elected their first multiparty parliament yesterday, as the government cracked open the door to the opposition, but pointed to the Algerian crisis as the reason they shied away from a fully free vote.
The ruling Democratic Constitutional Assembly is still expected to dominate the legislative body, and President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ran unopposed, was assured reelection to a second five-year term. His party has ruled this North African land of 8 million since independence from France in 1956. But Mr. Ben Ali, seeking to demonstrate that Tunisia is serious about democratic reform, structured the election process to guarantee other parties would hold at least 19 of the parliament's 163 seats.
Muslim fundamentalist parties are banned in Tunisia, where the government has justified its limits on political expression by pointing to free elections in neighboring Algeria that nearly brought fundamentalists to power. The Algiers government, backed by the Army, canceled the January 1992 balloting and has since fought Muslim insurgents, leaving at least 3,700 people dead.
Final election results will be announced today. The warm weather yesterday encouraged the 3 million registered voters to turn out in large numbers, with some voting places reporting more than 60 percent by midday.
Eligibility rules kept anyone from running against Ben Ali, and the government has been tough on members of the press. But by Tunisian standards, the elections are historic - ensuring that the one-chamber parliament will become a multiparty body for the first time since independence.
Ben Ali first seized power in 1987 from President Habib Bourguiba, who was said to be senile. In 1989, Ben Ali won his first five-year mandate with 99 percent of the vote.
Moncef Marzouki, a doctor and human rights activist, tried to run against Ben Ali this year, but was unable to get the required 30 endorsements from legislators or city council members, virtually all of them part of the ruling party.
A total of 625 candidates were vying for parliamentary seats, though only the Democratic Constitutional Assembly was competing in all 144 districts. The opposition parties failed to form a common front, and experts expected them to post few if any outright victories.