Tunis Saturday before the election in Tunisia, another huge test of the fragile democracy forged during the Arab Spring, there was quiet. The election rules had ended debates and public campaigning the day before the election. In fact, the Organizers’ Forum had to reschedule one of our events because there was a rule against public gatherings of almost any form. After days of endless debates on the central boulevard, it seemed nice to have some relative peace.
Such a rule is not common in the United States, except in union elections before the National Labor Relations Board. In these instances, there is a 24-hour rule, where a company is well-advised to maintain some silence, because any new allegations trigger unfair labor practices that could lead to filing election objections and rerunning the vote. The simple reason is that the union would not have enough time to respond to a company fabrication to offset its impact in the 24-hours prior to voting. As I’ve often explained, the rules for elections under the NLRB make lying legal as long as the union has enough time to try in an uneven situation to tell the truth, up until the final day.
This is unlikely the reason for the quiet period in Tunisia. ACORN’s organizer in Kenya, part of our delegation this year, said that a similar end to campaigning was mandated in his country. It is likely common elsewhere as well, even if unknown in the USA. The argument is that it allows voters to reflect and make their judgments more soberly.
Soberly, is key. There are still rules in many parts of the United States about whether liquor can be sold on election day or, if sold, in what proximity it can be hawked to the voters. Such rules have deep roots in the old school American practice of selling votes. I can remember hearing similar stories from by great uncle, Grady Bullock, who served several terms as a county judge in a farming county north of Memphis. Elections, he described, were one-dollar a vote and a lot to liquor, both central to the GOTV program there.
Walking through the city and the Medina, there were numbered blocks painted on some walls between one and twenty-six and one and forty some. The purpose was to allow pictures of candidates or parties in the voting places to be presented so voters could poll by the numbers. An interesting technique.
The first set of elections had seen voting percentages in the high 60%, which was encouraging, but the more recent municipal elections had been only about 38% of eligible voters. Expectations are high for the democracy, especially for the economy, and have been hard to deliver, depressing enthusiasm at the polls. There are many election observers present to observe, and, hopefully protect, the process. Reports that came to our organizers of an unprecedented surge that registered 1.5 million voters has some worried about the outcome of the election.
A 50% majority is required, so with 26 candidates remaining, a runoff is virtually assured. This will be interesting to watch.