Subject: Yayasan HAK: East Timor Elections in the Context of Nation-Building

Press Release distributed at a press conference at Yayasan Hak, Dili, Timor Lorosae 9:00 am 3 September 2001

From: Yayasan HAK 
Hukum, Hak Asasi & Keadilan (Law, Human Rights & Justice) 
T-091 Gov. Serpa Rosa St.
Farol, Dili - Timor Lorosae

East Timor Elections in the Context of Nation Building


In an attempt to contribute to the process of nation building in East Timor, Yayasan HAK has conducted various programs in relation to the election and the constitutional process. Through the Committee of a Free and Fair Elections (Komite untuk Pemilu yang Jujur dan Bebas--KOMPAS) formed with the involvement of all Yayasan HAK human rights partners in the districts, 182 electoral observers were deployed throughout the entire electoral process to witness and record issues of concern, and provide feedback for further improvement. During the political campaigning process, Yayasan HAK approached various political parties with issues of concerns regarding the conduct of political campaigning, and has engaged in positive dialogues in addressing those issues.

The primary purpose of this election is electing a Constituent Assembly to prepare the first Constitution for an independent and democratic East Timor. This election might also serve as a framework for future elections in East Timor. In short, this is not an ordinary election, and as such ordinary standards cannot be applied to determine whether the election can be regarded as a successful one.

Voter turnout

Much emphasis is being placed on the provisional figure of the 91% voter turnout. However this figure must be compared to the figure of 98.6% voter turnout in the 1999 Popular Consultation. In extremely difficult circumstances the East Timorese people demonstrated their will and understanding of the act of voting and its accompanying mechanisms. In 2001, in peaceful and secure environment, with the presence of heavily funded electoral education campaign, the voter turnout stands lower at 91%. Therefore the figure of 91% should not be read as evidence of a successful election, but evidence of the desire of the East Timorese people to have a voice in their future.

Moreover, as this is an election of a body to prepare and adopt East Timor's first Constitution, the voter turnout figure must not be viewed as a complete expression of this desire. The lead up to this election for Constituent Assembly was notably characterized by the lack of Constitutional debate, both during the civic education campaign and the campaign of the political parties. The votes cast will reflect the choices of political parties or person to represent the electorate in the Constituent Assembly. However, they cannot be viewed as the voice of the people in the formation and adoption of the Constitution.

Democracy beyond the act of voting

For hundreds of years, the East Timorese people have been excluded from democratic governance and control of their own affairs. This cannot simply be reversed by people exercising their rights to vote. Avenues for participation and an ability to have active input in the decision-making processes are vital to ensure that the East Timorese people have a voice in governance which they have been denied for so long.

This election has been portrayed as a model for democratic transition by UNTAET. Although the election in itself has been largely successful, we must recognize its limitations and shortcomings. Organizational inconsistencies prevented even those who were registered from voting, most notably electoral observers. Other problems resulted from lack of sensitivity for those with special needs, particularly disabled persons. Deficiencies in UNTAET sponsored electoral education process were revealed through many voters lack of understanding of the voting procedures and general understanding of the purpose of the election.

This election is a step towards democracy, but is a small step in a long process to a successful transition to democracy.

As the result of this election, the Constituent Assembly will be responsible for the next steps in the transition to democracy in the whole process of nation building. Amongst the many tasks that the Constituent Assembly is entrusted to carry out, one should certainly be to look electoral process and its shortcomings, and put forward a system which best serves East Timor.

As previously highlighted, this is an extraordinary election conducted for the purpose of writing and adopting the Constitution for East Timor. Even in the case of an ordinary election, the role of a candidate on election entails a great responsibility to ensure that they continue to reflect the will of the people and provide a space for the electorate to directly voice their concerns in decisions that affect their lives. However, in light of the importance of the tasks of the Constituent Assembly members to adopt a Constitution which will endure far beyond their term of office and even the lives of their electorates, the burden on them to reflect the aspiration of the people is even greater. An information campaign, especially on the substance of the Constitutional debates is crucial to ensure informed contributions by the people in the constitutional process.

As a fundamental principle of democratic conduct, and noting the limitations of this electoral process, it is imperative that the Constituent Assembly provides further opportunity to connect people with the decision-making process, rather than attempt to encompass the aspiration of their diverse electorate.

Dili, 03 September 2001

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