Earlier this month, I was invited to participate in an Election Observation Mission (EOM) with my organization, the International Republican Institute (IRI). This was my first time as an observer with an EOM. IRI wanted me to gain experience managing and organizing an EOM. In February, Nigeria will hold its Presidential, National Assembly and state elections and IRI is considering an EOM. I was excited and looking forward to this opportunity. For the most part, I would be observing Tunisia’s first presidential election. In 2011, it was Tunisia that gave birth to what is now called the Arab spring. A young fruit vendor ignited himself on fire to protest the corrupt practices of the authoritarian government but his actions also ignited an entire region. Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain all erupted in protest to demand the end to authoritarian rule. On Sunday, unlike the other countries that either succeeded or tried to overthrow their regimes, this tiny Mediterranean country not only celebrated an end to a dictator’s regime but held an historic election to choose a new president.
Tunisia is a very nice country. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea on the northern coast of Africa, the tiny nation has miles and miles of coastline and a comfortable tropical climate. While Arab in culture and religion, France’s influence can be felt across the country. Bread is equated to survival and cafes are a staple of any city or town. France also left a legacy of cigarettes. People smoke everywhere – in cars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and cafes. In the United States, smokers have been regulated to outdoor smoking sections that exist 25 feet from any door or entry way. While I am not put off by cigarette smoke, it is difficult to adjust to in closed-in spaces.
I had the opportunity of observing various poll centers throughout southern Tunisia. I was paired with Paul DeGagagrio from St. Louis Missouri. We rode five hours to the city of Gabes to observe the voting process. We visited 11 Polling Centers and 18 polling stations (within the Centers) between 7:00am and 8:30pm on Election Day. The polling centers we visited were diverse, with a good mix of urban and rural. In the urban locations, the poll workers were happy to assist the international observers. In the more rural districts, the poll officials were much more standoffish. However, at one school, we were invited to join some observers for tea.
During this once in a lifetime opportunity, I was able to witness the joy and celebration as Tunisians filed in and out of polling units casting votes. In one polling center in Gabes town, a disabled man had to be carried into the polling station to cast his vote. He said that it was very important for him to cast his vote for the new president. In addition, I had an opportunity to talk with various organizations about the election and the future of democracy in Tunisia. In one of our meetings, I asked, how do you distinguish between 27 different candidates? An older Tunisian man, working with people with disabilities said to me, “for so long we had only one candidate, we are happy with 27.”
In my work with the IRI, I have come to learn that democracy is different throughout the world. What works in one part of the world doesn’t always work in other parts. I currently reside in Nigeria where I work to support the country’s continuing work to move to a democratic society. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and its “winner takes all” political system has been plagued with voter fraud and ballot stuffing. My greatest take away from this experience was the sense of disappointment for Nigeria’s political system. For forty years, Tunisian’s lived under a corrupt authoritarian regime that demanded bribes from its citizens. Now the country was striving to move away from those corruptible practices. While the infrastructure can use some modernization, Tunisia has reliable power, great roads and easily accessible toilets (that is a really big deal). On the other hand, Nigeria, who has been striving for democracy since its first elections in 1999, lacks toilet facilities for a majority of its citizens, a decaying infrastructure system outside the major cities and major corruption in the government and at the ballot box. I was disappointed that after all these years and after billions of dollars of oil money lost to corruption, Nigeria was still considered a developing country. While Tunisia has a long way to go in turns of political development and expanding opportunities for its population, to a casual observer, it seems light years ahead of Nigeria.