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Pre-Election Statement on East Timor Elections, April 12, 2002

Background: The Carter Center re-opened a field office in East Timor in May 2001 for the long-term observation of the Aug. 30, 2001 Constituent Assembly elections and the subsequent constitution drafting process.

Carter Center long-term observers were deployed again to East Timor in March 2002 to monitor the pre-electoral environment in the lead-up to the territory's first Presidential elections scheduled to take place April 14, 2002. Short-term advisors also have arrived and been deployed, with a delegation of 15 observers who will cover 11 districts on election day.

Center observers have visited 12 of the 13 Districts in East Timor, meeting with representatives of political parties, East Timorese non-governmental groups, domestic monitoring groups, and community members in the 12 districts. The following is a summary report of observer findings.

  • People appear vocal, ready, and willing to vote for their first president, who will preside over independence ceremonies on May 20th. However, there is concern about what will happen after May 20 with respect to the relationship between the new president and the government. The president's influence will be greatly dependent on his popularity with the electorate, given the limited powers bestowed to the office under the new constitution.
  • The electoral process continues to run smoothly, according to schedule, and with low security concerns. The Independent Election Commission has done an impressive job preparing for the election. East Timorese have played an increasing role in planning and implementation. All district electoral coordinators and deputy coordinators will be Timorese, and half of the district electoral officers also will be Timorese. East Timorese also will be more involved in the management of both the voting and counting processes than they were during the Constituent Assembly elections. The one major electoral disagreement that emerged was over the use of political party symbols and was resolved through the intervention of Timorese leadership.
  • A peaceful, high level of participation in the election is anticipated. Voter education programs organized by the IEC have been successful, and voters seem confident in voting procedures. Although concerns have been raised in Dili about potential low voter turnout, observers have found that eligible voters in the districts are eager to cast their ballots on election day. There has been a limited effort to urge voters to purposefully cast spoiled ballots as a form of protest voting. Weather conditions will be a challenge for voters as the rainy season makes roads impassable in some places.
  • Campaigning is low key, as voters respond mainly to the candidates being present at campaign events and only after the visit of the candidate. The presidential campaign, mirroring the approach of most East Timor parties, is highly personalized. Many political parties have not actively campaigned for this election; thus there has been little campaigning around specific party issues and platforms. The candidates have agreed to be respectful of one another and have refrained from personal attacks directed at each other. The televised debate on April 11th, sponsored by the university, is a good example of issue-oriented campaigning and is to be commended for its contribution to political discourse.
  • More than 1,800 domestic observers have registered with the IEC to observe the elections despite facing obstacles of limited resources. Although domestic observer presence appears to have been limited leading up to the election, a high number of domestic observers is expected on election day. Their active participation is of key importance to the future development of democratic civil society in East Timor.
  • Observers have noted various organized security groups that have no formal relationship to the civilian police force or defense force. Reports are contradictory as to the origin and purpose of these groups. Some appear to be ceremonial, preparing to take part in May 20 Independence ceremonies, and others are seen to be eager for recognition and seeking benefits from having played a role in the struggle for independence. Others may have a self-declared security role, given the early stage of development of official indigenous security forces in the country. Some may be up to no good. While it appears these groups present no threat to the upcoming election, the fledgling nature of political and legal structures below the national level leaves political space for their influence in the districts and sub-districts outside Dili. These groups bear close watching, with careful consideration of their activities and possible threats to citizen's democratic rights.
  • East Timor is witnessing an increasingly high rate of return of refugees from West Timor. The IEC has worked to accommodate as much as possible the large number of people who desire to vote on election day. However, due to the high numbers, concern has been raised that not all returnees may be able to register in time to vote. This could create confusion and frustration on polling day.
  • A large number of political party agents have registered with the IEC. Although they play a critical role in confirming the transparency of the election, they too face resource and logistical constraints. Observers have witnessed a high level of activity by party agents in some districts, and virtually no activity by these groups in other districts. Even with the challenges noted, it is anticipated that party agents will be present at most polling stations on election day.
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