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March 21 , 2005
Palestinian elections: One observer’s journal
The Carter Center participated in the National Democratic Institute (NDI) delegation to observe the Jan. 9 Palestinian elections. A former Carter Center intern, Josh Roberts, spent a month in Jerusalem reporting on election developments and preparing for the arrival of center delegates, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Below are excerpts from Roberts’ journal.
6 a.m., Election Day, Jericho
Polls open in one hour. The sun is not out yet, but a warm glow is highlighting the Jordanian mountains and a small sliver of the moon sits brilliant on the horizon as my partner, Caroline Baxter from NDI, and I head east from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Our driver and translator are very quiet this morning. Everyone’s energy is running low from burning the midnight oil this past week in preparation for today. The Dead Sea reflects the rising sun through the windshield as we turn from the main highway into Jericho. At 1,200 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point on the face of the Earth … the high point of my experience so far.
7:01 a.m., Aqbet Jaber Women’s Center
The first to vote is a man who looks to be in his 70s. He’s smiling at the poll workers, at the other voters and at us, happily embracing the realization of his right to vote, however late in life. He holds his ballot up in the air, acknowledges the group of international observers, and drops his vote into the box. We make eye contact as he nods in my direction and then shuffles out the door.
Observing the environment outside the center, I notice a table has been set up just outside the entrance. Inquiring further, I discover that [Mahmoud] Abbas’ supporters, Fatah, have set up a system of transport for voters who do not know where they are supposed to vote. Mustapha Barghouti’s supporters approach us and demand we tell Abbas’ supporters that their campaigning on Election Day is illegal. The Fatah members approach, pushing some of the Barghouti supporters away to dissuade them from talking to us. Again, the Barghouti supporters implore us to intervene, but we can only respond that we are here to observe and cannot directly affect the situation. As the tension escalates, I file a complaint with the station manager. Upon reviewing the complaint, he takes immediate action, pointing out the violation of Palestinian law to the police, and they are able to disband the groups after minor yelling and pushing.
8:15 a.m., Ein Al Sultan school
A few voters who cannot read are being assisted by younger family members. One older man announces his entrance with a loud, “I’m here to put for Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas)!” He doesn’t understand voting procedure, much less the concept of a private ballot, and there is much laughter and amusement in the explanation. Caroline and I spend an hour here, taking turns between the cold classroom and the warmth of the sun outside.
9:45 a.m., Aqbet Jaber kindergarten
The station supervisor, Tehaany, is a fiery, no-nonsense lady. Although she is quite strict, the voters and workers are having fun and smiling as she herds them in the right direction, scolding children and adults alike.
An old lady does a little dance after she votes. She begins singing in Arabic and she shakes everybody’s hands as she exits. Tehaany doesn’t break a smile and seems a little disturbed by the slight lapse in order. I note her professionalism to the station manager and, observing our conversation, she asks what I am saying. Upon hearing my compliments, she nods, her shoulders go back, and she stands straighter.
8:30 p.m., Aqbet Jaber Women’s Center
Voting has been extended from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The afternoon was spent observing throughout the Jericho governate. We return to Aqbet Jaber Women’s Center to observe the closing at the same place we opened, hoping this provides some continuity to our observation process. We find the same workers who were here at 6 a.m. They look tired but excited to be closing after this long day. They close the doors and clear the tables. One worker calls out the serial numbers of the ballot box seals. Everything matches. Pouring the ballots carefully on the table, the tally begins. When the counting ends and we sign as witnesses, we give the workers a round of applause. There are smiles all around as they too begin to applaud the culmination of their collective efforts.
It is 9:50 p.m., and we make haste to the exit checkpoint. It closes to Palestinians at 10 p.m., so we don’t want to risk the safe passage of our driver and translator. Caroline and I are very tired, but neither of us sleep a wink on the drive back to Jerusalem. With no energy left, our thoughts are abuzz with the experiences of our most incredible day.