Elections represent a reference in my life, and for no special reason, If you ask me.
First, I became 18 just in time for voting the first time, and at the same time I was a candidate, for the local administration: 36 votes.
That outcome stopped my career as a politician, but may be started a process that would have taken over later on.
After my degree (thesis on The Right to Development and the New International Economic Order) I found a job in a strange NGO that I had found in the Yellow Pages.
But I still wanted to go to Africa, to contribute to the cause of development.
After some years, I got the unique proposal to leave to the South of the world, as a UN volunteer to organise elections in Cambodia.
That was not exactly what I was looking for, but I couldn’t expect many other opportuities to come up, then I accepted.
After one year in Cambodia, with some friends and colleagues, we wrote to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposing ourselves as observers for the Mozambican electoral process, and to our big surprise, we got an answer first and a proposal later on, actually to go to South Africa for the first real elections: Mandela elections.
After that one, there were many others: Mozambique, Bosnia, Albania, Palestine, Togo, Moldova, Bangladesh, Malawi, Indonesia, Ecuador, Madagascar, Congo Kinshasa, Ivory Coast, Venezuela.
Sometimes it was useful, sometimes not too much so, almost always it was interesting.
The first memories which come up relate to minor details, funny or potentially tragic, but not historical at all.
In Cambodia, I remember when, after the vote, I was travelling to the Provincial town with on the pick up almost twenty of the local elections officials which worked with me; they had just got their last salary.
A military tried to stop us, he had a machine gun, was probably drunk and surely not very happy about the election outcome. I slowed down and then accelerate again and passed by him. He shot, luckely up in the air; sometimes I wonder ……
In Bangladesh, I remember when with Francesco we went to meet some responsible of the incumbent party, which had lost the elections. On the table there were some peanuts, we ate them fast and furious and after some minutes they had some chicken served for us.
In Togo I met the President, I was alone and had to travel in his stronghold in the North as I met him in his role of candidate. He was big, quite aged and had a ‘preacher’, attitude. For a moment I thought he was out of his mind, but may be he was only acting to impress the young stranger.
In Madagascar, I remember when we interviewed the candidates for the clerical jobs, almost 200 interviews in two or three hours. Finally the people recruited were not bad at all.
In South Africa I remember that walking in Guguletu I was quite scared. Since we arrived in the country everybody was insisting that we had to take care, that it was unsafe for us to go around, that this township was a dangerous place.
May be it was, but there were schools and bakeries and people doing their life as everywhere. The election day, among those long queues, I eventually felt completely safe.
In Mozambique, in the remote village of Muecate, if I remember the name well, I took a photo of the party agents seating one up on the other in the only small bench available. Few days before they were fighting each other and now they were there; impossible to distinguish one from the other. We arrived in the village by elicopter, myself and a Malesian colleague, a military. Both of us did not speak any Portugues, as the local people didn’t either. But we communicate quite well. They proposed to bring us hunting the gazella, unfortunately we declined, it would have been a fantastic story.
In Kinshasa I went to a meeting of the election commission with the parties representatives. The programme mentioned that the meeting would have started with the national hymn. I thought they would have played a cassette. But they all stand up and sang all together. In the song was often repeated the name of the country: Congo….Congo ….
In Bosnia I was deployed in Serpsko Goradze, where some of the terrible pages of that conflict were written.
The elections day, when people from the other part of the town came to vote under the escort of the Portugues army, my driver, who was a candidate for the Nationalist Party and was proud of having taken part to the chase against the others, said he was moved as it was a very long time he didn’t see his former neighbours. Once again, I could not tell apart the ones from the others.
What I have learned from these experiences?
That you cannot trust anybody. It is not a totally bad realization. It just means that the rules are important and have to be respected by everyone. Nobody could stand above the rules.
And that elections are not the solution to each problem, do not guarantee democracy and participation but sometimes offer some surprise and allow people to actually declare their will. But that lasts only a moment if there are not the conditions to keep the momentum.