Tunisia's rubber-stamp parliament has passed a new constitution that would allow longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to stand for a fourth term of office in the year 2004.
The constitutional reform bill breezed through the ruling party-dominated parliament Tuesday with only six abstentions, the state news agency TAP reported, cited by AFP.
The new basic law must be approved in a referendum expected in the late half of May or early June in the conservative North African country, which had its first taste of multi-party democracy in 1999.
The 182-seat parliament includes 148 members of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally, while the remaining 34 seats are shared amongst five opposition parties.
During the final reading Tuesday the bill met with no opposition from ruling party deputies, while Mohamed Harmel, head of the Ettajdid Movement with five seats in parliament, voiced reservations.
"Priority should be given first to cleaning up the political climate," he said, adding that the bill had been drafted and passed too precipitously without due regard for democratization, AFP added.
According to the changes, a president can stand for re-election an unlimited number of times, however the maximum age for eligibility would remain 70, as stipulated in the current constitution.
At the age of 65, Ben Ali would thus be eligible only one more time under the new rules, while under the current rules he would have to step down at the end of his third five-year term in 2004.
Ben Ali, who has led Tunisia since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1987, stood as the single candidate in presidential elections in 1989 and 1994.
The last elections, in 1999, were seen as a trial balloon for multi-party politics. However Ben Ali faced only token resistance from two challengers, and won with 99 percent of the vote, AFP said.
The proposed new constitution includes measures aimed at advancing pluralism, such as the creation of a second legislative chamber and two rounds of voting in presidential elections.
In addition, the reform expands the powers of the constitutional council. (Albawaba.com)
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