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East Timor - the perils of instant reportage

By Michael Leach - posted Tuesday, 17 April 2007


The perils of instant reportage were evident in the coverage of East Timor’s elections last week.

Last Tuesday, early results from Dili were proclaimed to show Fretilin’s candidate Lu Olo in third place. This announcement (from the regrettably partisan spokesperson for the National Electoral Commission (CNE), Father Martinho Gusmao, who had publicly endorsed one of the opposition presidential candidates) created a media climate in which an entirely predictable event - the sharp rise in Fretilin candidate Lu Olo's vote when Eastern districts votes came in - came to be viewed to be under a cloud a suspicion.

Mounting opposition claims of irregularities in the conduct of the election soon followed. And there are numerous reports of low-level intimidation, on both sides of the political divide, which should be investigated. However, as the 1999 referendum should have amply demonstrated, the East Timorese people are not easily intimidated into voting a certain way by anyone.

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It is becoming clear that some opposition claims about the conduct of the election are grossly exaggerated, or at best, pre-emptory and ill-informed.

In particular, claims that about 30 per cent of registered voters did not vote quickly dissolved upon inspection by monitoring teams.

According to Damien Kingsbury of the Victorian Local Governance Association electoral observer group, poor registration practices, particularly the issuing of new cards to those who held them from previous elections, resulted in a grossly inflated "registered voter" figure. For example, about 6 per cent of the entire roll is now deceased.

An even larger discrepancy appears to be the product of the double listing of previously registered voters who obtained new cards for this election. Though these people may have voted legitimately, they will also appear as "did not vote" registrants. Indelible ink marking the index finger of voters seriously limits the chances of double voting for this class of voter.

In sum, the gap between registered voters and cast votes is much narrower than suggested, at about 7 per cent, and voter turnout was in fact as high as 93 per cent.

Compounding the registration errors, the CNE has failed to adequately explain the cause of these problems to the press. More was to follow. This week, phantom figures from Baucau district suggesting 300,000 votes were counted (from a pool of 100,000 registered voters) turned out to be a simple accounting error by the CNE, not an irregularity involving suspect surplus votes.

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It now seems that the sole substantive issue is the 10 per cent of votes that were declared invalid - and these will now be subject to a monitored recount in Dili. In other words, the 166,000 “missing voters” have essentially been accounted for, and the 200,000 “excess voters” from Baucau never existed.

With 2,000 international monitors, a UN police presence, and squads of party scrutineers, the scope for widespread electoral abuse was fairly limited. For all the legitimate concern about the potential excesses of party militants on all sides, neutral observers should be aware that ritual claims of foul play are now part and parcel of the ongoing conflict within East Timor’s political elite.

While some of these reflect very legitimate concerns over blurred boundaries between governing party and state, others are now commonplace vehicles for political ambition which sees rewards in continuing the ongoing climate of political instability. The international press should be subjecting opposition claims to greater scrutiny, as it should with Fretilin’s own claims of voting irregularities, which, in inverse proportion to opposition complaints, have trailed off as their vote has increased.

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A shorter, edited version of this article was first published in Crikey! on April 13, 2007.



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About the Author

Michael Leach is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. He is co-editor, with Damien Kingsbury, of East Timor: Beyond Independence, published by Monash University Press.

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