26 October 2014, Tunis – Not being a Tunisian citizen and nonetheless desirous of participating in the excitement of the elections day, exploring and observing different areas of the capital on 26 October with some of the Nawaat team was the next best thing to casting a vote…
Here are a few observations and remarks about what we saw and heard in Menzah, Manar, Ettadaman, and downtown Tunis:
8:45 a thick line (of virtually all male) voters waiting outside the school across from police headquarters in Bab Souika
9:20 a nearly empty Notre Dame voting office
9:30 a hearty crowd awaited their turn outside the school to enter a buzzing interior; one man interviewed said that he had voted according to party program, whereas his companion indicated his vote was based upon charismatic personality; others, when asked how they decided for whom to vote, responded only for whom they had voted. Several police dressed as civilians observed from a distance.
10:10 In Menzah 1, the school yard was teeming with voters. Within the span of about a minute, two elderly men inquired where to find the voting room corresponding to their name.
Having one hour prior received a report that elderly adults in need of assistance in another area of the city were being encouraged to vot Ennahdha while receiving help, we noted the susceptibility of certain voters to disingenuous tactics of the like.
10:45 Voters in Menzah 5 and Menzah 6 voting offices were concentrated in the schools’ ground levels. When asked about how the voting process seemed to be going, one ATIDE observer at the primary school in Menzah 6 mentioned that, in spite of small irregularities such as lists not being posted in some voting stations, things seemed to be going smoothly and participation was good. At 6:00am, he said, there had been 80- 90 people already waiting at the gate.
11:45 Before reaching the preparatory school gate in Manar, we were approached by one man who had voted earlier in the morning, and who repeated vehemently several times that the voting process was «a shame,» that some voting offices had not even been opened, and that such irregularities were intentional. A passerby heard the man’s negative remarks and heartily disagreed, explaining that the problems thus far had been small, that small problems are «normal» as «even the most developed countries» experience small problems during elections.
12:15 Before leaving a fairly empty voting station at the primary school in Manar, an I Watch observer confidently reported that she had not witnessed any problems and moreover that approximately 70 percent of voters registered to that particuar office had already participated by midday.
Police and army officials were stationed outside of each of the voting centers visited, where inside one to three white and red jersey-clad ISIE members, as well as one to several observers from various political parties, Atide, and/or I Watch monitored the process. Inside voting rooms, individuals showed a piece of identity, signed their names, dipped an index finger into purple ink, picked up a ballot stamped in four corners with the ISIE seal, and marked their preference on the sheet before folding it and dropping it into a large plastic ballot box.
14:00 The primary school of Cité Ettadaman was quiet with some two dozen individuals, including observers. The preparatory school close to the souk was relatively more energetic with voters and journalists, and one young man in particular who claimed that the local official, a member of the Ennahdha party, was influencing the observers present at that office in favor of those who were affiliated with Ennahdha.
Our Hands Are Clean
Walking through the souk outside the school, it was clear, based on proof of un-inked index fingers, that many residents had not voted. Asked why they had chosen not to go to the polls, several, showing off clean hands, expressed that there are no true distinctions among political parties and their programs and that none of them in any case will bring the changes promised, so that there was no reason to participate in elections.
At most stations visited in the morning, voting rooms one and two were crowded by groups of individuals waiting to enter and cast their votes, whereas other voting rooms equally equipped for people to receive voters were empty. Why was the distribution of voters in within the respective voting stations so apparently uneven?
15:30 In contrast to what appeared to be winding down in the afternoon at voting stations in Menzah, Mansar, and Ettadaman, the press center downtown was buzzing with journalists, microphones, cameras, conversation. ISIE official Nabil Baffoun’s remark that irregularities could be explained by «human error» was sharply contradicted as soon as we stepped foot into the parking lot behind the press center, where some forty individuals were crowded close to the entrance. One person after another approached Nawaat and shared a similar story; each had arrived at his or her designated voting station and time as per the text message sent by ISIE only to find that their names were not on the list. Instructed by various officials to go to one voting station after another and ultimately informed that an updated list of names would be available at 2pm, each individual by late afternoon had been unable to cast his or her vote (the said list not having been produced) and stood waiting, angry, frustrated, confused, outside of the press center where ISIE officials remained inside and inaccessible.
Are such discrepancies and irregularities indeed to be explained by «human error» as Nabil Baffoun suggested, or are these intentional flaws as suspected by those who had registered and shown up as instructed but been unable to vote?
26 October was fraught with all of the excitement and uncertainties that months of anticipation, debates, preparation, and campaigns have instilled. Critical observation has been of the utmost importance in this first test of democratic elections for a full-term five-year government, and national and foreign observers as well as journalists and media professionals undertook the task, watching, documenting, and reporting on events of the day throughout the country. The next step is of course to assemble and compare all notes and testimonies and results to discern whether the inconsistencies and irregularities are relatively few, apparently isolated or arbitrary occurrences or if they are prevalent and consequential enough to indicate otherwise.