ANFREL Interim Statement on the 2023 Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections
The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) extends its congratulations to the people of Timor-Leste, as well as the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE) and the National Elections Commission (CNE) for successfully conducting the 2023 parliamentary elections that were marked by peace, genuineness, and transparency.
For the 2023 Timor-Leste parliamentary elections, there were 890,145 registered voters with 878,345 voters in the national territory and 11,800 voters abroad. There were a total number of 1,472 voting centers comprising 1,850 polling stations on Election Day. The sixty-five (65) members of the Timorese parliament were elected through closed list proportional representation.
ANFREL’s international observers visited 42 polling centers in seven municipalities including Ainaro, Aileu, Baucau, Covalima, Dili, Manufahi, and Oecussi on Election Day, witnessing the opening of polls, voting, closing, and vote counting followed by the tabulation process at the municipal level. Additionally, observers closely followed campaign activities and the pre-election environment in Dili, Baucau, Bobonaro, Ainaro, Aileu, Liquica, Viqueque, Covalima, Manufahi, Manatutu and Oecusse.
ANFREL observed a remarkable level of participation and enthusiasm among election stakeholders throughout the entire electoral process. The voter turnout exceeded 79%, with notable engagement from party supporters during the campaign phase. ANFREL also witnessed the significant presence of party agents (fiscaís) at polling stations, along with a notable presence of domestic election observers. These observations reflect the positive dynamics and the maturity of the youngest democracy in Asia.
ANFREL recognizes the commendable voter and civic education efforts by election management bodies, political parties, and other stakeholders. The combined efforts of these election stakeholders resulted in less than 2% of votes cast being invalid.
In the last week of the campaign period, ANFREL observers were able to see vibrant campaign rallies of the different political parties all over the country. In the big campaign rallies, compliance with CNE regulations was observed to be high. The presence of a number of CNE monitors ensured such compliance. Despite a few isolated incidents of violence, the overall campaign environment remained peaceful. The presence of a number of Polícia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL) personnel also ensured that violent incidents would not happen. The high regard for the rule of law is also worth noting for all electoral stakeholders. In the interviews conducted, there was a unanimous belief that the rule of law should be followed.
It is worth noting that political parties and domestic election monitoring groups showed a high level of trust in the CNE and its impartiality. Despite this, there was a confusion on the process if there were conflicting schedules among political parties. ANFREL recommends for CNE to be transparent on its methodology of assigning dates and times for political parties. This is to avoid any semblance of partiality on the part of the CNE.
To further improve this campaign environment, ANFREL recommends to ensure accessibility of the campaign to persons with disabilities (PWDs) and elderly voters. The location of big rallies were inaccessible to mobility-impaired persons. ANFREL further recommends to political parties to have sensitivity training for their candidates and personnel to encourage the appropriate language to the PWD sector in these parties’ campaign speeches and activities.
ANFREL also recommends for CNE and the new Parliament to study the feasibility of putting a cap on the expenses of political parties and donations made to political parties. This is to ensure a level playing field among political parties. While political parties are entitled to a public subsidy as determined by the Law on Political Parties, currently set at USD4 per vote received, it is crucial to ensure that campaign expenses for political parties remain within reasonable limits and are not unlimited.
On Election Day, ANFREL observers visited a total of 42 voting centers encompassing 77 polling stations. The overall environment on Election Day was orderly and peaceful. Voters were able to vote freely. Fiscaís and domestic election observer groups were also able to observe without any problems. It is worth noting that political parties and domestic election monitoring groups showed a high level of trust on STAE and its readiness on this day.
In all voting centers observed, all election paraphernalia arrived and all polling staff were present on time. A few voting centers did not open at 7:00 a.m. There was also confusion on the time party agents, polling officials, and PNTL were to vote. ANFREL recommends to STAE to include in the head of the polling center (Brigada) and polling officials’ training the timing when fiscaís, polling officials and PNTL would vote. This is to ensure voting starts at 7:00 a.m. for the general public.
ANFREL also observed that in some polling stations, the voting booth set-up did not ensure secrecy of the vote. Some booths were placed in a manner so that people outside the polling station could take a look at the ballots marked by voters. ANFREL recommends that voter secrecy and voting booth set-up be emphasized in the Brigada and polling officials’ training.
ANFREL was also able to observe three special polling stations including two hospitals and one in a prison. It appeared at the two polling stations in hospitals that voter identity verification was skipped. When officials were asked the reason for this, they answered that there was pre-registration in the hospitals for the special voting. It is recommended in future elections that this stage in the process still be observed to ensure the identification of voters.
Although accessibility has been an identified problem for voting centers in previous elections, it is worth repeating that the government should ensure accessibility of these establishments used for voting centers. This is not only useful for PWD voters on election day, but for the general public even after elections.
Counting and Tabulation
The counting of votes was transparent. The process was not only open to fiscaís and domestic election observation groups. It was also open to the general public who were interested to see the counting.
Tabulation was also transparent. The process was accessible to fiscaís and domestic election observer groups. It was observed that internet connection was an obstacle in the tabulation, even a cause for delay in some districts observed. It is recommended in future elections that STAE ensures an adequate internet connection to prevent delays and unnecessary uneasiness among the public during the tabulation.
The media was free to cover all campaign and election day activities. The media has played an important role in voter education including the National Debate being full time broadcasted by the state media organization RTTL. Election stakeholders, including civil society that ANFREL observers spoke to, commended the impartiality of the media.
Facebook was often mentioned by election stakeholders as a source of information for voters on the process of voting and the plans/programs of political parties. It was also cited as a challenge as political parties and their supporters were throwing insults at each other on the platform. ANFREL recommends for political parties to include in their peace covenants the proper use of social media for campaign activities. This might be in the form of a code of conduct which they can sign, before the start of the campaign, with each other and online media platforms. ANFREL further recommends that CNE take the lead in the adoption of this code of conduct by the political parties. ANFREL does not recommend any regulation on content by the government as this might be used to stifle freedom of expression by the general population.
ANFREL recommends CNE and STAE to include media literacy in their civic and voter education activities. This should include discussions on the proper usage of social media and measures to fight against misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. This is to prepare the general public on the bigger role social media platforms would play in future elections.
Women and PWD Participation
Women Timorese voters were not observed to face any barrier to access the campaign activities of political parties. They were also observed not to face any barrier on Election Day. However, in future elections, to further improve the voting experience of women, especially mothers who bring with them their babies/children on Election Day, it is recommended for STAE to allow mothers with babies/children to vote without having to queue.
It is also recommended for STAE to emphasize on the training of Brigada and polling officials the queue prioritization of pregnant women, older people, and PWDs. It was observed in a number of voting centers that despite queue prioritization, older people still fell in line together with all the voters. Queue prioritization would increase the accessibility of elections to these voters.
A greater majority of the polling centers and the stations visited by the ANFREL observers were not accessible for wheelchairs. ANFREL recommends to STAE the conduct of an audit prior to future elections and partner with the civil society in ensuring the accessibility for the PWDs. Further, ANFREL recommends introducing a ballot paper template for blind voters to ensure the secrecy of their ballot. Lastly, ANFREL calls on the STAE to collect the information on PWD voters in the voter registration stage. This will facilitate PWD voters' right to vote.
In the 2022 Timor-Leste Presidential elections, STAE implemented three parallel voting centers to ensure that voters registered in other municipalities could vote in Dili. For the 2023 Parliamentary Elections, STAE did not implement the parallel voting system. In lieu of this, free transportation from Dili to the other municipalities was provided to voters prior to Election Day.
ANFREL recognizes this provision of free transport as a positive step and recommends it to be continued in future elections. ANFREL further recommends that STAE develop a long term plan to establish such an advanced or parallel voting system permanently to prevent voter disenfranchisement.
The assessment of the elections' overall conduct considers international norms and principles as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and regional instruments like the Bangkok Declaration on Free and Fair Elections and the Dili Indicators of Democratic Elections.
ANFREL is the largest regional election observer network in Asia and has observed over 70 elections since its establishment in 1997. This interim statement will be followed by a comprehensive mission report to be tentatively published in July 2023.
ANFREL wishes to thank the Embassy of Canada to Indonesia and Timor-Leste and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) for their generous support to this mission.
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