Pantin, Paris suburb, 21-23 november 2011.
This week-end I was one of the 21389 observers deployed for the 2014 Tunisian presidential elections, or shall I say, the first free presidential elections in Tunisia’s history. I was representing ATIDE, the Tunisian Association for Integrity and Democracy in the Elections, and observed the electoral process in one of the 79 voting centers set up in France. My observation center was Pantin (center 35), northern suburb of Paris, and I supervised a team of 5 ATIDE observers for 4 polls during those 3 historical days.
In Tunisia, the electors were invited to vote on Sunday, 23rd of November. Abroad, the polls opened on Friday morning, 8:00 am.
The first morning was filled with excitement and anxiety. How will it go? Will people come and vote? Will the organization be good, and will the members of the voting center be cooperative? Will this week-end be peaceful and smooth, or will there be troubles?
The voting center was located in a gymnasium, wide open space – not a single area was hidden to the eyes of all (except for the voting booth of course). I was there among the first people setting up the polling stations, 7:15 am. A calm tension was palpable. Obviously I was not the only one feeling excited and anxious. A couple of other national observers were present as well. The members of the High Independent Instance for the Elections (ISIE) in charge of organizing this electoral week end were buzzing around the center, setting up voting booths, tables, chairs, posters explaining the voting process and legislation, signs showing the way out and others informing that the use of phones and other photographic devices was not allowed inside. At the same time everyone was welcoming and cheerful, offering us a very much needed cup of coffee or some croissant and pain au chocolat. The wonders of Tunisian hospitality with a french touch.
8:00 am, the voting center opens. The members of the polling station are extremely professional. The observers are invited to witness every stage of the procedure. The urn is perfectly empty. The tracking numbers of the seals are noted down. The urn is sealed. The packs of empty ballots are counted. Every time a new pack is opened, the voting papers are counted in our presence. There are already a few citizens waiting to make their voice count. Five or six people. The morning starts slowly. All goes smoothly.
Over the week-end, some incidents happen. On the third day, an elector warned me about a person working in an other voting center giving voting indications to vulnerable citizens – understand old persons not knowing for whom to vote and asking advice. The person asked did not seem to understand that he was not supposed to answer. Another time, a little over-zealous voting station’s president wanted to assess his authority over the entire center, he eventually stuck back to his position. Now and then a few lost citizens, not able to vote because they did not register and did not understand why they were not allowed to vote.
There were also beautiful moments, reminding you that these elections are historical. An aged man, who could barely walk and had eyesight problems came by himself to vote. The members of the voting station set a chair for him at the booth so he could take all the time he needed to decipher the ballot and make his decision. He told us afterwards that he had to come, as it might be his only chance to practice his right to vote in his life. A woman, 54 years old told me that she came to vote for the first time of her life, because for the first time her voice counted. In an another center, a man with both arms amputated insisted on voting by himself without help. He used his feet. He claimed dignity and independence. People brought their young kids, stating that they came to vote today for the future of their children. Another man came in our center proudly waving the Tunisian flag. After he put his ballot in the urn he shouted ‘Tahya Tounes’: ‘long live Tunisia’.
To all those who do not believe it, this is democracy. People expressing their opinion. People proud to exercise their right to vote. People realizing the value of this right to vote, because they have been kept silent for so long.
The great missing in this wonderful electoral week-end was Youth. The Tunisian youth, so great in number does not seem to be really implicated in the democratic process. Or perhaps was not integrate enough in it. About 22% of the Tunisian population has between 18 and 29 years old, almost the forth of the population. However, from what I saw at the polls, most of the voters were aged 40 and plus.
Where is the Tunisian youth? What is certain is that while being the fresh strength of the Nation, they are not integrated in the process of building it, whether politically or economically.
Sunday, 6:00 pm the voting center closes its doors. Time for counting the ballots. But before that, all the procedures. The urn is sealed for one last ceremonial time. The members of the polling station reorganize the space for the counting. Empty tables in the middle where the urn is enthroned, a large panel on the side on which is fixed large pages with the names of all the candidates on columns. Chairs facing all of this, for us, observers. Another large table, that will be later used to put the counted ballots in piles. Everyone gets in place. Tension is more than palpable, it’s breathable. It is 7:15 pm, the urn is opened.
After about two hours and a half counting the ballots, it is done. It’s all done. The electoral week end, the tension, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the sleepless nights and the wait. The wait is over. Some might dare ‘all of this for that?’, well yes. All of this incredible work and dedication from thousands of people around Tunisia and abroad, uncountable hours of work and liters of coffee and tea for this: a smooth transparent and peaceful election.
Voters turn out in France Nord circumscription was 48,64% (almost same as for the legislatives – 48,37%). The exiting president, Moncef Marzouki is leading with 41,93%, followed by the leader of right wing democrats party Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caïd Essebsi with 37,50%. The third man is Hama El Hammami, leader of the left wing party Front Populaire with 11,00% of the expressed votes.*
In Tunisia and abroad, voters turn out was 62,91%. Beji Caïd Essebsi leads the first round with 39,46% of the votes, followed by Moncef Marzouki with 33,43%. The third man is behind with 7,82% of the expressed voices.
Today we are still waiting for the date of the second round, as some legal actions have been introduced (and retracted) concerning certain polling stations. The High Independent Instance for the Elections should communicate a date in the coming days. We are waiting. After 23 years of dictatorship, patience is a Tunisian virtue.