Generally as a tourist you’d probably tend to avoid travelling to a country during an election period, but as a traveller who goes on three-week plus trips, sometimes, you can’t avoid them.
I’ve been in four elections in four different countries.
In 1997, I witnessed a phenomenon rarer than El Niño: Chilean Parliamentary elections – only the third after the Pinochet dictatorship.
The TV was chock-a-block with dozens of election addresses transmitted back-to-back, but who was right and who was left ?
If the camera zoomed on a Chilean flag in the middle of the Lake District and you heard major chords, it was propaganda for the Right.
If the camera interviewed a Mapuche Indian about the price of bread, it was a party of the Left.
If it cut between an interview with a copper miner and a Chilean landscape while simultaneously playing a cuenca, it was a party of the Centre.
If it is was a collage of black and white photographs of people with funny haircuts in rapid succession (without sound) you just knew it was the Alternatives.
Finally, a guy called Kostas Zafiropoulos was running in Antofagasta as an Independent – for the Greek party?
But what really put me off is that the consumption and selling of alcohol was prohibited on election day itself.
Forward to 2012 and I was in Alsace during the French Presidential elections. Posters were only put up in places designated by law and they were duly defaced as befits the birthplace of Charlie Hebdo. You could tell Hollande would win by the number of different insults heaped upon Sarkozy’s face.
The French were externally full of sangfroid about the election, but uncharacteristically worried in private. Almost every person I met and exchanged more than one sentence with asked me whether I thought France was going to the dogs.
Austerity was on the horizon and the novel prospect of a German-led Europe – simultaneously abandoned by Britain – scared my friends profoundly. Watching the Greek crisis with horror, they saw the euro as a Trojan horse for German economic domination.
Hollande came across more human than Sarkozy and someone who promised the people what they wanted to hear. I heard no one speak well of ‘Sarko’. Even his supporters seemed to detest the man.
In 2014 I was in Greece during the European and local elections. That’s where the election period became intrusive.
Not only were walls covered in posters inches thick and the streets paved with election literature, but my Greek SIM also kept receiving candidate text messages, calls to attend speeches and summons for marches.
They continued for days after the actual election: this time with invitations to parties both for winners and losers alike.
As Greeks vote where they were born rather than where they live (changing your constituency is a bureaucratic nightmare) there were extra flights, ferries and buses from the urban centres to the villages – and they were all full.
Given that the mayoral local election system follows the French one with the top two candidates battling it out during the next weekend, as well, moving about in Greece during an election needs to be confronted with a large smattering of patience to say the least.
Yet, my most indelible memory of an election was in 1990 when, as a backpacker, I stormed into Eastern Europe newly liberated from the Soviet Union’s hold, only to find myself in Budapest during the first free post-1945 election.
The atmosphere was electric and the excitement palpable.
The small, colourful election leaflets on the streets seemed like confetti after a victory parade. They carried only the name and the colours of a party: MDF, KDNP and FIDESZ are those that feature in my faded pictures.
FIDESZ in particular was the party of youth, a party of students with a membership age limit of 35. Certainly the people my age I met were all FIDESZ supporters. Its showing was poor, but my newly found friends weren’t bothered; the future was theirs in more ways than one.
FIDESZ is now the party of government, but it’s a very different beast from the 1990 incarnation. The age limit has long gone and a U-Turn around 2000 saw it split and become right-wing and nationalist
In power, it legislated to remove checks and balances in the media and the civic discourse. I will always remember the exhilaration of that Easter in 1990 and wonder where it all went wrong.
Would I recommend travelling abroad during an election?
All my experiences were positive. In every case I saw a different face of the country than a tourist would. In the case of Hungary in particular, it led to a long love affair that culminated in my studying that forbidding language and writing a guidebook about the country.
If you want no hassle during your trip, avoid foreign elections. But if you to gain an insight into a country, then it’s the best time to delve into the national character.