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Observers to Timor-Leste’s elections

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As Timor-Leste heads into the three rounds of 2012 elections, election observers have begun to organise to monitor the election process and to report their findings. Accredited by Timor-Leste’s National Electoral Commission (CNE), observers continue to play a critical role in the young country’s still developing democratic process. Observers have been a part of Timor-Leste’s democratic process from the start of the country’s move towards independence. In 1999, independent observers spread across the then occupied territory, often by local transport and staying in homes or basic local accommodation, helping to enhance the larger international presence and thereby complicating plans by the Indonesian army, then known as ABRI, and its proxy militias to derail the ballot process. The observers gave Timor-Leste’s people an understanding that, though it was a difficult time, they were not alone. In some cases, observers were intimidated and came under direct threat from militias. It was later learned that it was only an ABRI policy of not attacking foreigners for fear of attracting too much negative international attention that prevented observers from being included in, or at the forefront of, their campaign of violence. Neither the UN nor international observers could stop the destruction and violence that was visited upon Timor-Leste and its people in the lead-up to and following the 1999 ballot. But the observers were able to report these events to the world. Those reports were instrumental in applying moral pressure to other countries to send a peace keeping force that ended the violence and ensured Timor-Leste’s transition to independence. A small number of international observers also attended the 2001 national assembly elections, for what became the country’s new parliament and for the 2002 presidential elections. Following the politico-military crisis of 2006, election observers returned to Timor-Leste in 2007 in much larger numbers. In part, the observers’ role was to be able to report on whether the political process was free and fair but, in part, their presence also helped ensure that the violence which continued to sporadically affect the country did not interrupt the elections. People who wish to make mischief with electoral processes are more circumspect about their activities when they know they are being watched and will be reported. The 2007 elections were held in a tense political environment with Australian and New Zealand soldiers and Portuguese and Malaysian riot police helping to keep the peace. Despite this, there were a number of politically-related killings and dozens of house burnings. Even though it was a somewhat difficult time, the international election observers were well received by all East Timorese, who saw them as a guarantor of the neutrality of the electoral process. As with 1999, observers travelled across the country, often by local transport, staying in local homes and guest houses. Again, too, observers showed the people of Timor-Leste that many in the international community continued to care about them and their future. Observers were at polling stations across the country when, before daylight, sealed ballot boxes were unpacked, the ballot papers checked and the boxes re-sealed to take the soon to be marked ballot papers. Then the observers watched the voting, noting the processes and procedures and, in a small number of cases, the problems and breaches of rules that accompanied the voting process. Despite the small number of breaches, all of the observer groups in 2007 declared that the vote in both rounds of the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections had been free and fair. This helped give confidence to the East Timorese people that their electoral system was accurately reflecting their wishes, thus helping to consolidate democracy in Timor-Leste. In 2012, international observers will again attend Timor-Leste’s elections, starting with the first presidential round of voting on 17 March, to be followed by a probable second presidential round on 14 April and concluding with the parliamentary elections on 29 June. As in the past, volunteer observers will be self-funded volunteers who are committed to Timor-Leste’s future and see a transparent and accountable political process as being key to the success of that future. Of the observer groups, the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network is expected to be among the largest, with more than 160 expressions of interest in being observers to one of the three electoral rounds. As with past election observer processes, observers are required to be impartial, non-partisan and not affiliated with any political party in Timor-Leste. In the case of the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network, they should also be committed to human rights and non-violence. Because of the lack of facilities in Timor-Leste, particularly beyond Dili, election observers again need to be prepared to stay in local accommodation (such as home stays), to use local or provide their own transport and be adaptable to local, often simple, foods. Being with the people of Timor-Leste means, for observers, to share their lives, at least for a short while. Being a volunteer election observer in Timor-Leste is not cheap or even easy. However, watching the way in which the people of Timor-Leste celebrate the coming elections, seeing them in their finest church clothes, queued up at dawn waiting for polling stations to open, is a lesson in the meaning of democracy. Perhaps when there is so little at stake, such as in developed countries like Australia, it is easy to take democratic processes for granted. In Timor-Leste, voting is the only opportunity many people have to alter the circumstances of their lives. In 1999 they voted overwhelmingly for independence and in 2007 they voted for a new government. 2012 will see the consolidation of the democratic process in Timor-Leste. It will also mark the embedding of the empowerment of the people of Timor-Leste.

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