BACK DOOR Newsletter on East Timor .........home ...... Sep news

" ... this election is a small but important part of the larger process of nation-building, leading to a constitution, independence, and self-government. IFET believes that this step has been mounted successfully, but that significant obstacles remain for a truly democratic process. ... We believe that the campaign and voting were largely free and fair, and that the results will accurately reflect the preferences of the people of East Timor within the limited issues and choices placed before them." International Federation for East Timor (IFET)
See also:

BD: 'Refugees' & Missing Persons
BD: Peoples' Participation / Participação Dos Povos / Partisipasaun Politika
BD: Capacity Building & 'Timorisation' / à Criação de Capacidades


Elections in the Context of Nation-Building

Preliminary Report

Press Release distributed at a press conference at Yayasan Hak, Dili, Timor Lorosae

9:00 am 3 September 2001

International Federation for East Timor (IFET)
2001 Constituent Assembly Elections Observer Project

Contact in East Timor: Charles Scheiner
                       (0417)923273 or +61-417-923273

IFET Background

The International Federation for East Timor (IFET) was formed in 1991 as a coalition of East Timor solidarity groups from around the world. At present, IFET includes 37 organizations from 22 countries.

During the 1999 Popular Consultation in East Timor, IFET organized the largest international observer mission, with 140 volunteer observers from two dozen countries living for weeks in every district of East Timor. We hoped to help shield the East Timorese people from Indonesian military violence and to demonstrate that the people of the world were with them in their struggle for self-determination.

Although Indonesian military and militia violence is not a factor in the current elections, and although these elections are but one step is a several-year-long process of nation-building, IFET decided to organize a small observer project. We accredited 20 observers from nine countries, and observed in eight districts. In addition, IFET collaborated with veterans of our 1999 Observer Project who were accredited through the Free East Timor Foundation (Netherlands) and the Osaka East Timor Association (Japan). Several members of La’o Hamutuk, a local NGO which has closely followed the nation-building process for more than a year, and of the Judicial System Monitoring Programme, also served as IFET observers.

Summary of Election Observations

Last week’s Constituent Assembly elections vividly demonstrated the East Timorese people’s desire for democracy and their commitment to voting. People of all ages waited calmly and patiently in the hot sun, often for many hours, to exercise their franchise. Although they were deprived of the right to rule themselves for nearly five centuries, they clearly understand and strive for self-government.

As discussed below, this election is a small but important part of the larger process of nation-building, leading to a constitution, independence, and self-government. IFET believes that this step has been mounted successfully, but that significant obstacles remain for a truly democratic process.

The election process worked well, as evidenced by the turnout of more than 90%. We believe that the campaign and voting were largely free and fair, and that the results will accurately reflect the preferences of the people of East Timor within the limited issues and choices placed before them. Although the lack of discussion of constitutional issues during the campaign was disappointing, the political parties largely acted with decorum and respect, and few if any voters were coerced or intimidated. This is a good sign for the future of elections in East Timor.

In another area, however, the future is less promising. We are especially disappointed with the capacity-building aspect of the election. We observed great variation in competency among the District Electoral Officers (DEOs), all of whom were foreigners. Many had trouble communicating with the East Timorese staff, and the working relationship was often strained. East Timorese poll workers were frequently not included in the processes of opening and closing the polling places, but relegated to the repetitive administration of the voting. There is much that can be done to improve the working conditions and training for local staff, many who worked more than 10 hours without a break or food on election day. Their work assignments could have been more flexible or their numbers greater to allow voters to be processed more quickly.

Some flaws inflicted unnecessary hardship on the voters. Some voters were assigned to polling centers far from their homes (even in different districts). Within towns there appeared to be little geographic logic as to which center people were sent to. Others, especially those in hospital or prison, were disenfranchised by the lack of an absentee voting procedure and the requirement that voters vote only at their assigned center (see report from the Judicial System Monitoring Programme).

Another concern relates to insufficient voter education leading up to the vote. Based on numerous interviews with people after they voted, IFET observers found that many voters, particularly older voters and women, did not know that this vote was to elect Constituent Assembly members or the purpose of the Assembly.

Election Day Observations

IFET observed at polling centers in the districts of Dili, including Becora prison, Bobonaro, Baucau, Cova Lima, Ermera, Aileu, Lautem, and Viqueque. IFET observers reported the climate was good, voters did not seem to feel threatened in any way and there were no reports of intimidation on Election Day. Though the logistics of the electoral process were sufficient for a free and fair election, there was confusion resulting from the continued process of amending the electoral regulations. At one polling station, 26 more national ballots were issued than regional ballots; the DEO explained that those not on the electoral roll had been permitted to vote in the national election only, even if they lived and had registered in the district.

IFET Observers reported problems resulting from the documented errors in the registration database, such as voters’ names missing or being registered at polling stations far from where they live, sometimes even in different districts. Voters were often directed to voting centers long distances from their villages, even if there were closer ones, adding to the time needed for voting and disenfranchising some in the late afternoon.

In Becora prison, only 48% of the eligible voters were actually able to vote, as the Judicial System Monitoring Programme report explains in detail. The lack of a provision for absentee voting disenfranchised people in hospitals, elderly, disabled and people in prison.

Voters in most polling centers we visited waited an average of 3-4 hours, and sometimes more than 6 hours, because of the slow identification process by the electoral roll officer. Where a second IEC staff member assisted this part of the process, queues were smaller and waiting time shorter.

In more than one case, DEOs did not know how to seal the ballot boxes or tamper-proof envelopes; in several instances they requested assistance from observers. During the voting day no provision was made for DEOs or local IEC staff to have lunch breaks.

In many polling centers, DEOs could not communicate well with local staff or voters because of language problems. Bearing in mind the total funds allocated for the election, training for East Timorese IEC staff should have been better. IFET is particularly concerned that the people of East Timor had few opportunities to learn how to organize future elections on their own.

Recommendations to improve the electoral procedures

1. There should be better training and more capacity building for IEC local staff, as well as better training for DEOs.

2. International staff should speak a local language to permit genuine collaboration.

3. Lists of voters should correspond better to voters’ actual area of residence, particularly in a sparsely populated country with limited transportation.

4. Provisions should be made for prisoners, people in hospitals, national observers, etc. to vote in other than their assigned polling centers.

5. There must be adequate staff assigned to check voters on the election rolls.


Some Shortcomings of the Process So Far

The constitution provides the basis of government - executive, legislative and judicial. It must effectively represent the aspirations of all East Timorese and be “owned” by them, so that the government can effectively serve the people and the people will be truly able to entrust power to the government.

A primary concern is that the whole process is too rushed. The current timetable seems to mostly serve the concerns of United Nations member states and established political organizations, rather than grassroots East Timorese wishes as expressed by the NGO Forum’s Working Group on Constitutional Issues and the East Timorese Catholic Church.

Civic education started late because UNTAET initially failed to consult East Timorese on its design, leaving little time for this critical part of the democratic process. Even on election day, many voters did not understand that the vote was to choose Constituent Assembly members and/or the function of the Constituent Assembly. While a directive from the SRSG established Constitutional Commissions in each district, these commissions had only 45 days to educate a mostly illiterate public on complex constitutional issues and gather input. The Independent Electoral Commission’s work concentrated on the mechanics of the voting process, which naturally required much attention.

IFET is concerned that electoral regulations already adopted will potentially limit the options of the Constituent Assembly. The decision to have voters choose among political parties (rather than individuals or sectoral representatives) could preclude diverse views and open debate. The structure of the Assembly, as well as the regulatory encouragement for it to evolve into East Timor’s first elected legislature, may pre-empt decisions on the structure of the legislature. The elected members are unlikely to relinquish their positions to stand for another election.

During the election campaign, the political parties provided little information about their views on constitutional issues. A truly democratic process would involve more informed debate prior to the election.

IFET feels that the process by which international and appointed institutions decided how the constitution would be defined has not been adequately transparent. The Special Representative of the Secretary General retains final say; there is an inherent contradiction in building a democracy through processes that are not democratic or subject to open scrutiny.

Recommendations to Make the Constitutional Process More Democratic

1. The initial constitution should be interim, or at least amendable through the legislative process. Many East Timorese organizations have suggested that the initial constitution should be followed by a longer term process to define the final form.

2. The Assembly should not be confined to a 90-day timetable. The Assembly will need to consider findings of the Constitutional Commission, consult with constitutional experts from around the world, and deal with concurrent legislative matters. If the Assembly decides to extend their 90-day existence, we encourage the SRSG to agree.

3. Draft constitutions should have been discussed during the campaign. However, there is still time to circulate such documents for feedback and public input, such as by holding public meetings throughout the country.

4. Particular efforts should be made to involve constituencies who may be marginalized from this process - such as people outside Dili, the rural population and women. We urge the Assembly to incorporate the Women’s Charter of Rights in East Timor into the Constitution.

5. Political parties should encourage Assembly members to follow their individual judgment and input from their constituencies, rather than enforcing party discipline. This will result in a more thoughtful and appropriate approach to the constitutional debates, and those elected will better represent all East Timorese people.


As we prepared our written report, we omitted one crucial observation. Our only excuse is that nearly every other observer group and discussion of the electoral process is missing the same fact - that approximately one-tenth of the East Timorese population is excluded not only from registration and voting, but from the entire nation-building process. The approximately 80,000 East Timorese people still trapped in refugee camps and elsewhere in West Timor and Indonesia have just as much right as the rest of the compatriots to participate in the development of their soon-to-be independent nation, and we urge all relevant authorities to redouble their efforts to enable them to do so.

International Federation for East Timor  Updated Feb 13
The International Federation for East Timor was founded in 1991 by East Timor solidarity groups from four continents as a clearinghouse for non-governmental organization (NGO) initiatives on East Timor and to support those initiatives, particularly in United Nations fora. IFET is accredited with the U.N. Department of Public Information and has a U.N. Representative in New York. Our secretariat is in the Philippines. IFET participates in U.N. hearings and conferences, supplies analyses and statements to the media, and lobbies the U.N.-Portugal-Indonesia East Timor talks to ensure that the human and political rights of the East Timorese people
are respected.
Email Charlie Scheiner:  Homepage:

See also:

BD: 'Refugees' & Missing Persons - A collection of recent information, reports, articles and news

BD: Peoples' Participation / Participação Dos Povos / Partisipasaun Politika - A collection of recent media releases, reports and articles

BD: Capacity Building & 'Timorisation' / à Criação de Capacidades - A collection of recent statements, reports, articles and news

BACK DOOR Newsletter on East Timor .........home ...... Sep news
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