Tension and uncertainty battle hope ahead of Sunday’s Elections

I arrived at my local Carrefour this morning at 8:45. The parking lot was half full even though the store doesn’t open until 9. With my shopping cart I navigated my way toward the entrance with about 300 other folks, all waiting for the gates to rise. At 9 a.m. exactly, the race was on – first milk, then water.

Milk and water have been in short supply for months now, though the elections have exacerbated the situation. With food stocks low in neighboring Libya, many consumer products have been shipped over the border. Milk is especially precious as it receives government price subsidies. Although the Tunisian government announced emergency measures to import milk from Germany, consumers have begun to hoard products when they become available – you never know when they might run out. Consumer uncertainty about how the elections will be handled has aggravated the situation, as I witnessed this morning.

A day after the end of political campains, party flyers littered the shopping carts at the local supermarket

The scene at Carrefour is emblematic of the uncertainty many Tunisians feel before the first free elections of their lives. While the Tunisians I speak to are justifiably proud of their hard won right to choose their leader, they are anxious whether their fellow citizens will respect the vote and, perhaps more importantly, whether their elected leaders will work on their behalf.

In the final week of the election, I spoke to dozens of Tunisians who had yet to make up their minds. Though it’s not as if they hadn’t tried. In fact, throughout the dozens of elections I’ve witnessed in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve never seen an election this wide open, with an electorate that takes its responsibilities this seriously. Of course, we read everyday now that Ennahdha will win on Sunday, but the reality is that they are not expected to win over 50 percent, and the most recent polling data suggested that the majority of Tunisians were still undecided. A common thought I hear is, “I’ve narrowed it down to two parties, I’ll decide on Sunday.”

The other fear is that the elections could be marred by violence. The police and military have mobilized en masse, 44,000 extra police and military will be on the streets. However, as we have repeatedly seen during the 10 month transition since Ben Ali’s departure, even relatively small manifestations can have important consequences. While the media has played an important role in magnifying these events, it is also new and shocking to Tunisians. The police state of Ben Ali did not allow dissent, raising a false sense of cohesion among Tunisians. The January revolution shattered these illusions and Sunday’s vote will be the first legitimate manifestation of these differences. There is a real fear that the elections could open up yet bigger rifts between Tunisians.

And yet, despite these fears, Tunisians have already begun to head to the polls abroad. Good weather and a lot of positive energy may encourage reluctant voters to join their activist compatriots at the polls tomorrow.

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