Subject: East Timor - the perils of instant reportage

On Line Opinion

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.

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.

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.

Importantly, neither the international monitors, nor the CNE itself consider there are any grounds to invalidate the election result.

While the CNE is still learning how to conduct an election and should not be too harshly criticised, it is fair to say that commentators seeking explanation for major irregularities should probably look to the processes of the Commission and its technical secretariat, the STAE, rather than the actions of political parties themselves.

Much of this confusing reportage has occluded the real story - the significant fall in support for Fretilin. Barring a very low voter turnout, Jose Ramos-Horta will almost certainly win the second round, as other opposition candidates swing their vote behind him.

This vote is a promising development, and one which clearly signals the likely emergence of a genuine multi-party democracy in East Timor in the coming parliamentary elections on June 30.

The collapse in Fretilin's vote since receiving 57 per cent in 2001, and dominating the 2005 district elections, suggests the 2006 crisis was a major factor in desire for change. The vote is easily poor enough to give succour to those within Fretilin who seek a change of leadership.

However, the demise of Alkatiri's confident assertion of an easy victory for Lu Olo is to some degree matched by the thwarting of opposition hopes that the 2006 crisis would herald a wholesale voter demolition of Fretilin. Neither has come to pass. Fretilin has retained a core vote which will probably see it remain the largest single party in the new parliament - though now in opposition against a coalition of anti-Fretilin parties.

The Fretlin vote may actually increase slightly in parliamentary elections - as Jose Ramos-Horta is probably more capable of swinging Fretilin supporters than Xanana Gusmao now is; having maintained better relations with the governing party, and kept himself more successfully "above the fray" in the 2006 East-West crisis.

Nonetheless, the likelihood remains that Xanana Gusmao's new party, the CNRT, will form a loose coalition with PD and other opposition parties to form a government after June 30. Who becomes prime minister will depend on which party gets the largest number of seats. Gusmao has the higher profile with a broader support base and is therefore favourite, but PD has the more organised party structure. The "last-minute" nature of CNRT may tell against them.

Moreover, PD has an established alliance with two other smaller opposition parties which may favour the younger contender Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo. Gusmao has ruled out joining forces formally, and will therefore have to poll well to guarantee the PM role.

In the long term, however, this informal coalition may prove fragile and unstable. The parties have anti-Fretilin sentiment in common, and also Catholic Church endorsement, and broadly concur on a less critical approach to the very few neoliberal development prescriptions that Fretilin rejected.

But populist opposition calls to spend East Timor's now substantial oil funds still lack adequate detail on the type of sustainable development initiatives proposed to address entrenched poverty, and on controversial intergenerational issues (such as the choice of official languages) the anti-Fretilin parties, broadly representing different generations, may yet find little ground in common.

Inevitably, part of a wider problem with political accountability in a country without mature democratic institutions has been a weak, marginalised opposition in the wake of Fretilin's dominant showing at the 2001 elections. Clearly, this will no longer be the case after June 30.

While this election represents an important milestone in East Timor's political development, the emergence of a genuine democratic political culture will require all parties to accept the election results - not just Fretilin.

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

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