Damien Kingsbury and Michael Maley
The Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission (ATLEOM) wishes to congratulate the people of Timor-Leste on a peaceful and successful 2017 parliamentary election. The ATLEOM project also congratulates the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE) and the National Electoral Commission (CNE) on conducting a successful election.
The election marks a deepening of the democratic process in Timor-Leste, which continues to be enthusiastically embraced by an overwhelming majority of Timor-Leste’s people. Although final figures were not available at the time of writing, it appears that by international standards, Timor-Leste has again had a high voter turn-out for its voluntary elections. Preliminary turn-out figures indicate a participation rate close to 77 per cent.
Timor-Leste’s 2017 elections have demonstrated that Timor-Leste is capable of running independent and successful elections without external support. Timor-Leste’s assistance mission in support of the 2014 Guinea-Bissau elections was a strong indication of the professionalism of its domestic electoral management capacity as well as its commitment to good democratic practice at home and abroad.
ATLEOM fielded 62 accredited parliamentary election observers, reporting from each of Timor-Leste’s 13 municipalities (formerly ‘districts’). ATLEOM is a continuation of an election observation group that has observed each of Timor-Leste’s elections since the ‘Popular Consultation’ ballot in 1999 which led to the restoration of the nation’s independence.
Despite the overall success of the election process, initial election observer reports from the ATLEOM team identified minor procedural problems with the conduct of the election at some polling centres. All reports identified that these problems were unlikely to have a meaningful, if any, impact in each particular instance. As a result, the cumulative impact of these problems was unlikely to have had a substantial influence on the overall outcome of the election.
However, the outcome of the election was very close between the two leading parties, neither of which was able to achieve an absolute majority of votes or seats in its own right. Because of that close outcome, even a minor influence on the electoral outcome could potentially mark the difference between which party wins first or second place.
Under the Timor-Leste Constitution, following the election the President calls on the ‘most voted’ party to form government. Only if the ‘most voted’ party is unable to secure the support of a majority of elected members does the President have a constitutional mandate to devolve formation of the government to another party able to enjoy majority confidence.
As a consequence, even the most marginal potential for influencing election outcomes must be seriously addressed by the CNE and STAE.
Such problems as were identified by ATLEOM observers were not consistent across all polling centres and in many cases only occurred in isolated instances. The single most prevalent problem identified across numerous polling stations was the appearance and conduct of party agents/scrutineers (fiskais).
Problems identified and which should be addressed in future elections included the following.
– Most commonly, party fiskais were able to be identifiable by political affiliation. This is a clear violation of the spirit of rules about political party material being present within polling stations and fiskais being identified with particular political parties. While no fiskais seen wore explicit party material, the coloring of shirts closely based on party flag colors was a clear indication of party affiliation. Recommendation: Fiskais should be issued with and required to wear shirts of a standard colour not related to any party (e.g. white).
– Fiskais walked freely in and out of polling stations, which sometimes led to more than one fiskais from a party being present within a polling station at one time. Recommendation: There should be stricter control of fiskais by polling station secretaries.
– Fiskais were observed in some instances giving instructions to polling station staff. Recommendation: Fiskais should have clear instructions to not interfere in the conduct of the electoral process, with this being enforced by polling station secretaries.
– There was a widespread failure to check voters’ fingers for indelible ink marks (indicating prior voting) before they were issued with a ballot paper. Recommendation: Closer attention should be paid to checking hands for ink prior to checking names on the list of voters and issuing of ballot papers.
– Mobile phones/cameras were seen in some polling stations. Recommendation: The ban on mobile phones/cameras should be more stringently enforced at the entrances to polling stations.
– Inconsistent starting times were identified in a small number of polling stations; one polling station was observed to open over a half an hour late, and did not even begin to set up until voting was due to have commenced. Recommendation: There should be tighter control and supervision of polling station starting times to comply with legal requirements.
– In one instance, a young female voter was not allowed to take a small baby into the polling station and had to hand the baby to another person in the voter queue in order to vote. Recommendation: Dependent children should be allowed to accompany a parent into a polling station.
– Under the prescribed voting procedures, voters with a visual impairment had no choice but to have their ballot papers marked on their behalf by another voter. Recommendation: Braille ballot paper templates, a well-established technology, should be made available to enable such voters to cast a personal and secret vote without such assistance.