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Tunisians Overwhelmingly Approve Constitution Amendments - 2002-05-27

Tunisians have overwhelmingly approved constitutional changes that will allow President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to remain in office for at least 12 more years.

Official results of Sunday's referendum released Monday indicate that more than 99 and one-half percent of ballots cast were in favor of the changes.

The results show that more than 95 and one-half percent of Tunisia's three-and-one-half million registered voters turned out at the polls. The ballot gave the option of a single yes or no vote to amend nearly half of the scores of articles in the constitution. One amendment abolished the three-term presidential limit. Others increased the maximum age for presidential candidates to 75 and granted presidents judicial immunity for life.

One other constitutional amendment creates a second house of parliament.

Tunisia's opposition says the government was interested onoly in ejnabling the 65-year-old President Ben Ali to run for two more, five-year terms. The next election will be held in 2004.

President Ben Ali came to power in a 1987 coup, after Habib Bourguiba, who ruled unchallenged for 30 years, was declared senile and incompetent. The new Tunisian leader then did away with lifetime presidential terms.

Sunday's referendum was the first since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956.