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By Christian Lowe and Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians voted Sunday in an election almost certain to extend the rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the 73-year-old who has run the North African country for more than two decades.
International rights groups say the government has ensured a landslide victory by harassing the opposition, an allegation Ben Ali said was part of a campaign of lies by opponents who were betraying their own country.
Western governments view mainly Muslim Tunisia as an ally in the Arab world and a moderate bulwark against Islamist extremism.
At home, many voters credit Ben Ali with making Tunisia -- which attracts millions of European tourists each summer -- one of the most prosperous and stable states in a region that suffers from poverty and political turmoil.
At a polling station on Rue de Marseilles in the centre of Tunis, 50-year-old Nejia Azouzi said she had voted for Ben Ali. "He is the saviour of the country," she said.
The president came to power in 1987 when doctors declared his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, unfit to rule after more than 30 years in power. Ben Ali won the last election five years ago with 94.4 percent of the vote.
Tunisians were also electing members of parliament in Sunday's poll.
Polling stations across the country of 10 million people closed at 6:00 p.m. (1700 GMT). The Interior Ministry is scheduled to announce the official results Monday.
Hours before voting was finished, Tunisia's official news agency said turnout was just over 75 percent. But with most Tunisians in little doubt about the outcome of the vote, enthusiasm was muted.
"What is the point in taking part?" said one young man in a cafe in Tunis, who asked not to be identified. "Everything that is happening is just a show."
The Tunisian government is sensitive about foreign criticism of the vote because it is expected to apply to the European Union next year for "advanced status" -- which could give it preferential trade terms and boost its international standing.
In a television address Saturday evening, Ben Ali said the election was free and fair but that some people were deliberately trying to damage Tunisia's image.
"The law will be applied...with rigour against anyone who spreads doubts or accusations about the integrity of the electoral process without providing hard proof," Ben Ali said.
He issued the warning after human rights groups alleged the vote was taking place in an atmosphere of repression. The opposition has accused police of beating up activists, and one French journalist was barred from entering Tunisia.
"Elections will be free and fair in Tunisia only when the authorities stop muzzling opposition candidates, journalists and dissidents," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
Tunisia's most prominent opposition figures are not taking part in the election and of Ben Ali's three challengers on the ballot paper, two rarely criticise the president and the third has acknowledged he cannot win.
In polling stations, colour-coded voting papers were stacked on tables ready for people to take into the voting booth.
In two polling stations in Tunis visited by Reuters reporters, the stack of red papers for Ben Ali was much smaller than the others -- a clear sign he was getting more votes.

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