Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission 2018
STATEMENT ON ELECTORAL PROCESS
The Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission (ATLEOM) congratulates Timor-Leste’s National Elections Commission (CNE) and Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE) for their sound organisation of the 2018 parliamentary election. As in the past, the poll presented significant logistical and organisational challenges, which were overcome.
ATLEOM had 48 observers across 11 of Timor-Leste’s 13 municipalities, with each observer team focusing primarily on one polling centre but able to visit a number of polling centres over the day. The evidence obtained through this sampling of the process across a number of venues pointed unambiguously to the conclusion that the electoral process run by STAE and overseen by the CNE was, according to internationally accepted criteria, free and fair.
ATLEOM expresses its concern over allegations regarding interference in the conduct of the election. Contrary to the impression which those making such allegations appear to have sought to convey, the administration of the 2018 parliamentary election was largely similar to previous elections, which had also been widely judged to be free and fair. ATLEOM notes that the legal and administrative framework for the election was virtually identical to that which applied in 2017, and which had been put in place by the preceding government and Parliament.
As in the past, some minor irregularities were noted by ATLEOM observers. On the evidence from those observers, such irregularities were procedural rather than substantive in character, and did not influence the legitimacy of the election process.
There were only two reports of election-related violence, in Viqueque and Baucau, both areas having in the past been prone to such activity. The incidents in question were small with no deaths being reported. In all, the electoral atmosphere was, despite some intemperate rhetoric from party leaders, calm and relatively free of intimidation. No violence was directly witnessed by ATLEOM observers.
OIPAS, a major domestic election monitoring body, had accredited observers at most of the polling stations visited.
As in the past, fiscais (party agents) wore t-shirts bearing party colors inside polling stations. While the t-shirts did not precisely reflect their party symbols, they did reflect their party colours. It is acknowledged that it would be all but impossible to stop fiscais from wearing politically identifying clothing other than by requiring them all to wear black or white t-shirts.
There were a number of reports of fiscais being active in polling stations, rather than being passive observers. In one instance, a fiscal was actively directing voters from the queue outside the polling station. In other instances, fiscais tried to direct STAE staff. Yet in another instance observed, the fiscal was standing in the middle of the polling station and argued with polling station staff in a manner that was regarded by observers as intimidating.
Police were observed at every polling station visited, usually well back from the polling station and in all observed instances being a non-intimidatory presence. In one instance observed, a police officer went to make an inquiry inside a polling station wearing his firearm. This did not cause concern among voters or staff.
Brigadas (polling centre chiefs) and STAE staff were inconsistent in their application of the rule preventing the taking of phones/cameras into polling stations and voting screens. In most cases there was a clear ‘no phones’ policy, but in some others, phones with a camera function were openly allowed into polling stations, in contravention of rules. (Observers were, however, also advised of an incident in which a person using a phone to photograph a ballot paper was taken into police custody.) The ban on phones in polling stations is intended to limit the practice of voters photographing their ballot papers, either as a consequence of intimidation or in exchange for payment.
The indelible ink used at polling stations to show that voters had voted was of universally good quality, as tested by numerous observers. However, several brigadas would not allow observers to test the indelible ink. It appears that STAE headquarters had issued instructions for brigadas to not allow non-voters to dip their finger in the indelible ink, possibly to thwart potential claims that non-citizens had voted. Such an instruction, if correct, means that observers are precluded from confirming that the ink is in fact indelible.
Voters otherwise consistently had a finger (or the tip thereof) dipped in ink before being allowed to leave the polling station.
Brigadas were generally very efficient and well organised. In one instance, a brigada was seen to speak with polling station staff and then leave on a motorcycle, and did not return while the observers were present.
STAE staff were efficient and well organised in almost all instances. There were a couple of instances of STAE staff taking ballot papers from voters and pushing them into what were sometimes over-full ballot boxes. There was one report of slow vote recording by a STAE official, but this appeared to be due to thoroughness rather than tardiness.
Polling stations were generally well laid out, in keeping with the general intended plan. In a small number of cases, voting screens were in separate rooms which meant, in principle, a phone camera smuggled in could have been used undetected.
Most voting screens observed were shielded from on-lookers and sufficed to protect the privacy of the voting process.
The polling process took approximately two to five minutes per voter across a number of polling stations.
Polling stations observed at 6 am were ready to proceed at that time. Polling began at 7 am and concluded at 3pm, with, in most cases, voters already having completed voting before that time. Exceptions were where a few remote polling stations did not have electricity and had to wait for daylight to start setting up, or where there had been long queues for most of the day.
All polling materials were unpacked according to the prescribed process and empty ballot boxes displayed to observers and then sealed, with the seal numbers being read out twice, in various languages (Tetum, Indonesian or Portuguese) depending on the area. Local observers seemed comfortable with the variation of languages used to read the numbers and were able to transcribe the numbers easily.
In the overwhelming majority of cases witnessed, disabled voters were well looked after, with STAE staff announcing the reason why a person was being accompanied at a voting screen. However, facilities for disabled access remain poor, especially for wheelchair-bound voters (for whom no specific access was identified at any polling station visited) and the very frail. There should also be at least one voting screen in each polling station available at seated level for those in wheelchairs or unable to stand.
The disabled, elderly and mothers with young babies were otherwise ushered to the front of the queue and, where, necessary, assisted in mounting the steps and through the voting process.
There were, on election day, claims made by a political leader that the electoral process had been compromised by the electoral organisations responsible for its conduct. These claims were not supported by observations made by ATLEOM observers. ATLEOM notes that the proper and responsible way of raising complaints about alleged malpractice is to put them before the Court of Appeal with supporting evidence, as required by law, rather than by disseminating them indiscriminately through social media.
More generally, ATLEOM also expresses concern over the combative and inappropriate language of some political representatives prior to and during the election campaign, relating to the conduct of the election. It cannot be said too strongly that such allegations about the management of elections are serious in character and, and should only ever be made if supported by the strongest and most unambiguous evidence. ATLEOM calls on all political leaders to moderate their language and to lead peacefully by example.
ATLEOM in an independent, non-partisan volunteer election observer project that has observed each of Timor-Leste’s national electoral processes, under different organisational guises, since the 1999 ballot for independence. Its volunteers comprise interested Australian citizens, members of Australian ‘friendship’ groups who have community links in Timor-Leste, former journalists, electoral administrators, former military personnel, academics, and senior public servants.
ATLEOM Coordinator, Professor Damien Kingsbury
Technical expert, Michael Maley
T: (Timor-Leste) (+670) 735 75989
T: (Australia) +61 (0)439 638 834