Davao-based solidarity group says Timor elections mission a success

The Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), a regional solidarity and advocacy institution which is the secretariat of Asia Pacific Solidarity Coalition (APSOC), organized the Asian Joint Observers Solidarity Mission to Timor Leste with its regional partners, namely: the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and World Forum for Democracy (WFDA). Observers, including parliamentarians and civil society leaders from ten different countries, including Timor-Leste, monitored the entire electoral process by attending campaign events, meeting with party leaders, observing the voting process and the counting of ballots.

SUCCESSFUL. This could be the most appropriate description of the recently-concluded elections monitoring mission in Timor Leste conducted by a Davao-based solidarity organization together with its partners in Southeast Asia.

The Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), a regional solidarity and advocacy institution which is the secretariat of Asia Pacific Solidarity Coalition (APSOC), organized the Asian Joint Observers Solidarity Mission to Timor Leste with its regional partners, namely: the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and World Forum for Democracy (WFDA). Observers, including parliamentarians and civil society leaders from ten different countries, including Timor-Leste, monitored the entire electoral process by attending campaign events, meeting with party leaders, observing the voting process and the counting of ballots.

“We did it as a concrete expression of our continuing solidarity with the people of Timor Leste after accompanying them in their journey to independence,” Gus Miclat, executive director of IID, told this writer. IID was also the secretariat of Asia Pacific Coalition for East Timor (APCET) that helped bring the East Timorese in their struggle for independence from Indonesia.

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The June 30 parliamentary election was part of the electoral process which includes the presidential election (held over two rounds on 9th April and 9th May) and the municipality (local government) elections scheduled to be held next year. This year’s elections were the first elections conducted by Timor Leste after being independent.

“And we are proud to report that the world’s youngest nation had successfully conducted its own elections,” Miclat said, adding that “the elections, both the presidential and the parliamentary, were generally fair, clean, and orderly.  We could learn a lot of lessons from them ourselves.”

Significant step

There were 14 political parties which contested the parliamentary poll — the first since Timor Leste won independence in 2002. Seven failed to win the three percent threshold necessary to take a seat.

The following are the results of the elections: the erstwhile ruling Fretilin party won 21 seats; followed by the National Congress for East Timor’s Reconstruction (CNRT), a new party founded by independence leader and former President Xanana Gusmao, with 18 seats; the coalition of Association of Timorese Democrats-Social Democrat Party (ASDT-PSD) won 11 seats; the Democrat Party with eight; the National Unity party won three seats while the Democratic Alliance and Undertim each won two. None of the parties won a majority in order to form a government.

The turn-out of voters was fairly high with 80.5 percent of 529,198 registered voters cast ballots.

Given the breakdown of peace and order last year which almost brought the fledgling democracy to collapse, the success of the election is a significant step in their post-independence development.

In 2006, it can be recalled that Timor Leste was on the brink of becoming a “failed state’ after some 600 soldiers left their barracks as a protest in what they called as “unfair and discriminatory” treatment among soldiers by their superiors. Since then, the country was threatened by a simmering violent ethnic conflict.

Commendable performance

Since a breakdown of security last year the UN has again had a big presence in Timor-Leste, along with Australian-led peacekeepers which had helped a lot in maintaining an orderly and peaceful elections. However, there are now mixed emotions inside Timor about the Australian presence with suspicions running high of their own culpability in fomenting the 2006 troubles and their reported intervention into the body politic.

The solidarity mission conducted by IID, in itself, was in response to the need for international presence during the parliamentary election, which was being considered as more critical compared to the presidential election held in April. It was feared that the parliamentary election will be marked by  violence but it turned out to be peaceful except for some isolated cases.

IID has led the solidarity movement for East Timor in the region since it convened the Asia-Pacific Conference for East Timor (APCET) in 1994.  The conference sparked enormous controversy when Indonesia under the then dictator Suharto pressured the Ramos government to stop it.  Ramos   tried but conference organizers persisted and won a Supreme Court injunction to proceed even as Ramos was allowed to deport and bar foreign participants to the conference.  A BIMP-EAGA conference in Davao was also postponed after Indonesian delegates refused to come in protest.

The conference then established the APCET coalition that spearheaded campaigns, missions, exchange programs and appearances in the United Nations on behalf of the East Timorese struggle for self-determination. The rest is history.

Ruby Rose Lora, project officer of IID who was with the mission, observed that the election has been fairly peaceful and honest. Although, Lora admitted there reported cases of violence in the media but those were “just isolated cases which did not affect the over-all results of the elections.”

“One thing that you can notice among the voters are their attitude towards the electoral process,” Lora intimated to this writer. Even after voting, according to Lora, the voters will never tell you whom they voted for.

“You can really see that they really hold sacred their right to vote,” she said.

In the over-all, it is highly commendable when we have to evaluate how the people participated in the elections and the way the polling staff performed their duties, Lora pointed out.

Beginning of self-rule

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Like any other newly independent state, the successful conduct of an elections is not an end by itself.

After the elections, the new government will face daunting problems: a poor, malnourished population with the world’s highest fertility rate; high unemployment; gang warfare between groups of disaffected youths; some 100,000 displaced people in camps; and the mounting tension between the government and the rebel soldiers.

This situation was perhaps best captured in Xanana Gusmao’s campaign under the slogan “We liberated the country…now we liberate the people” Gusmão, leader of the resistance to Indonesian rule, was president from independence in 2002 until May of this year when the people elected a new president, the Nobel laureate Jose Ramos- Horta.

Still, the post-elections development is a little muddled. The CNRT and ASDT-PSD and PD after winning 18,11 and 8 seats respectively announced that they had formed a coalition and wished to form a government. But Fretilin with 21 seats has not yet conceded defeat, signaling a possible legal battle ahead. The authority, however, to decide who forms government is in the hands of President Jose-Ramos Horta.

As International Crisis Group had pointed out in its briefing paper on Timor Leste, the problems which the country is facing are far from being solved with the conduct of the elections. All post-elections indicators seem to suggest that the disagreement on who will form a government will only complicate the situation.

What counts at the moment, however, is that the people of Timor Leste had demonstrated before the international community their capacity to conduct an orderly, peaceful, and clean elections.

“The East Timorese, who for so long had been denied a democratic voice, have come out in strength and confidence to choose their leaders. They deserve to be congratulated- and supported-  for this significant step in nation building,” Miclat concluded.

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