An “Observer” among the voters

From 26 February to 2 March, our Election Observation Mission to the Estonian Riigikogu elections took place. Several obserers decided to share their experience in an article. Read here part one in the series by Cono Giardullo. 

An Agitator among the voters” Roman Treuman (1952), KUMU Kunstimuuseum, Tallinn

The establishment of the Schengen area has allowed us, young Europeans, to travel freely around Europe, and discover every country’s marvel even for a short weekend. After few days spent in a city, we pretend to acquire a deep knowledge of the places we visited and once back we start telling stories to our friends, being sure of having caught the ‘essence’ of a different culture.

Election observers do pretty much the same, with one simple difference: we witness the Election Day!

This is what differentiates us from usual weekend travellers, as it allows us to take part – a passive though – into the most intimate act of every democratic country’s citizen: his right to vote. Indeed, elections and referendums are the only moments during which citizens attribute a meaning to the recurrent constitutional clause: “the sovereignty belongs to the people”.

Observers are supposed to spend some time – 20/40 minutes in average – in each polling station (PS). Besides checking that all procedures are fully respected and asking few questions to the PS Chairperson – way too boring in Estonia where elections are performed in an exemplary manner – much more interesting is the ‘human observation’.

I only realized this on Monday, when all the excitement about the Election Day was gone. What a privilege is to observe, in each PS, all sorts of human stories developing right in front of me.

All over the weekend, international media have reported that Estonians elections were strongly influenced by the aggressive stance of the Russian President in his quest to reaffirm his sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union space, starting with Ukraine.

This is why I was positively impressed by the routinely slow pace of old people, the smiling faces of 18 years old first time voters, the joy of couples and families, all of them calmly and respectfully accomplishing their most important civic duty.

I want to share two episodes I retained:

  • It is my third PS, when I encounter a great number of families coming to cast their ballots, and bringing along their children. All the little round red faces, fully covered by big hats and bonnets seemed pretty bored while waiting their parents accomplishing a series of useless actions: pulling out their own photo from the wallets, reading a list of names, hiding behind a curtain, and dropping a piece of paper into a blue box. But this very young Estonian citizen made my day, when wandering around the room, opened up the curtain where his mother was voting, and started playing with it. He probably breached the holy rule of “secret ballot”, but was indeed a quite excusable violation!
  • Russian citizens account for little more than 25% of the Estonian population, and election materials were often not available in Russian language. No doubts, then, that when an old ethnic Russian lady stepped in the PS I was monitoring, once she got the ballot, she entered the polling booth and abruptly felt lost. She was only supposed to write down a number, designating the candidate. Thus, she called her son for help. But the PS Chairperson rapidly walked in between the two to prevent the “unlawful help”. Well done! But please let’s improve minorities’ rights in this almost perfect electoral process.

Still, after 5 days in Tallinn, I do not pretend to have fully grasped the ‘essence’ of the Estonian culture. But certainly this beautiful country allowed me to do something more: monitoring another country’s elections reminded me the privilege we have in choosing our representatives – something we easily tend to forget.

Cono Giardullo