Tunisia: How a cooking contest has brought rural voters to the ballot box
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Can a couscous curb abstention? An association in Tunisia believes that it can. Tunisia Youth Impact is using cooking contests to encourage young Tunisian women in rural villages to go to the ballot box and vote in the country’s presidential election.
It is Saturday, October 12, in the small rural town of Echamine, around 20km south of Tunis. The next day, the country will vote in the second round of a presidential election pitting Nabil Karoui against Kais Saied in a head-to-head runoff.
But the chances are that here and in towns like it across the country, not everyone – in fact fewer than half of voters – will be heading to the ballot box. In the first round, the national turnout was just 48.98%.
Tunisia Youth Impact is hoping to change that, all through the power of gastronomy. Its Voticook cooking contests, in which participants vote for the winner, aims to raise awareness among rural populations, and particularly women, of the importance of participating in the democratic process.
“It’s a practice vote,” explains Wafa Tarhouni, president of the association. “It’s a competition between a certain number of women who compete through their dishes to be elected by the diners at the meal.”
From electoral lists to voting booths and sealed ballot boxes, the volunteers from Tunisia Youth Impact strive to match as closely as possible real-life voting conditions. The only difference is that the ink into which voters in Tunisia are normally required to dip their fingers to show they have cast their ballot has been replaced by a mixture of water and shampoo.
In Echamine, the day’s contest is being held in the concrete courtyard of a two-story house, still only half-built. It is the home of mother-of-four Hinda Jlass who, surrounded by her children and with a smile on her face, is preparing her own couscous for the competition.
“This event is above all a way of getting together with other women, and the essential thing is to participate,” she says.
Participating is something the 50-year-old housewife also plans to do on Sunday when she will cast her ballot in the second round of the presidential election. It will be only the second time she has voted in her life.
At noon, Jlass is joined by the other competitors from the village, seven in all. These are the candidates. But rather than a political programme they will be presenting their best culinary creations to the electors – in this case a group of around fifty people.
Each competitor will get a chance to say a few words about their dish – mainly couscous but also plates of macaroni and a rice dish, all accompanied by traditional mechouia salads and honey-flavoured makroudh pastries.
The “electors” will taste each concoction before voting for their favourite, using the exact same procedure they will use to cast their ballot in the presidential election the next day. Tunisia Youth Impact volunteers will be on hand to guide them through the voting process and make sure no one misses a step that might invalidate their vote.
Adding to the realism is the presence of members of the ISIE, the Tunisian election authority, and Stefan Ziegler, a European Union election observer.
“It’s original and everyone seems to be having fun,” Ziegler says with a smile. “It can only be a good thing for Tunisian democracy.”
After the vote, the ballots are counted. It is another opportunity for volunteers to point out the mistakes that might lead to a vote being declared invalid: a signature instead of a cross next to the chosen candidate, for example.
A clear winner soon emerges: Najwa Jlass, the sister of the hostess.
“I’m of course very happy to have won,” she says, clearly a little moved. “But what makes me happier is to see our community come together like this.” She adds that she will be going to vote “for real” the next day.
Tunisia Youth Impact has been granted funding to help mobilise voters in three Tunisian governorates near Tunis: Ben Arous, Béja and Zaghouan. For the group’s 60 volunteers, it is a massive task.
“The ISIE only oversees the smooth running of the elections, not the mobilisation of voters,” says Aymen Saleh, 36, the association’s spokesperson. “We are the only association operating in these three governorates.”
Nevertheless, for the first round of the presidential elections, held on September 15, Tunisia Youth Vote estimates it helped get around 1,000 people out to vote.
It may be a drop in the ocean among a population of more than 11 million people, but one helping to support democratic ideals in a place where free and fair elections are still a new concept.