East Timor: Fighting Confusion and Voter Disenfranchisement during Elections
By Cristiana Ximenes Belo
In March and April 2022, Timor-Leste held its presidential elections using the two-round system.
During this election period, the Secretariado Técnico de Administraçᾶo Eletoral (STAE) or the Technical Secretariat for Election Administration (TSEA in English) established three parallel voting centers (PVCs) in Dili, the country’s capital, with the hopes of enticing more voters – especially those who are from other municipalities who have no transport or unable to pay for transport fees – to join the political exercise.
With the three parallel polling stations, voters did not have to go to their respective municipalities in order to cast their ballots.
STAE prepared four thousand and thirty (4,030) voting forms to be distributed to the election management bodies’ partners, such as the Chief of village, the University and the Public Service Commission (PSC). In these parallel polling stations, three thousand four hundred and ninety people (3,490) used the polling stations and five hundred forty (540) did not.
Fighting voter disenfranchisement
But problems marred last year’s presidential elections, especially at the parallel polling stations where many voters were unable to participate in the political exercise.
Some voters did not see their names in the voting lists of the parallel polling stations, preventing them to cast their ballots. Some voters complained the situation to STAE but the body was not able to provide them with a solution.
João de Cortereal Araujo was one of the voters who were unable to find their names in the voting lists.
“I did not participate in the elections because my name was not in the election list,” he said. “They were looking for my name at the three PVCs but it was not found. In the end, authorities said, I couldn't take part in the election. I am very sad until now because my voice was lost.”
“I regret losing my right to vote. And I felt being discriminated against by the STAE and CNE (Comissão Nacional de Eleições or the Electoral National Commission) because they didn't let me vote, but my colleagues from the PSC (Public Service Commission) voted,” Araujo added.
He also complained that poll authorities failed to inform many voters instructions where to vote in the two-round system. Araujo claimed officials in his municipality and Dili gave him a runaround, preventing him to vote in the end.
Araujo promised not to vote again in the next elections if the electoral system did not change.
“In the next election, if the electoral system does not change, I won’t vote. It is only a waste of time,” Araujo said. “I have followed the procedure properly, but I felt I experienced serious discrimination in this process.”
Araujo also said that there seems to be a lack of communication between the concerned agencies in the elections.
But the Public Service Commission (PSC) says such problems were isolated.
PSC National Director for the Planning of the Staff Framework Francisco da Costa Pereira said: “There were no obstacles in the implementation of the parallel vote during the presidential elections because the rules were established. Municipalities were in touch with the Secretariat of the Civil Service Commission to ensure the staff, agents, and workers were working smoothly.”
The chief of the Village, Joao Baptista Belo, said: “STAE gave us ballot forms, at that time 200 per village, but some voters came to fill them out, while some did not.”
He said: “One reason voters did not cast their ballots was that they had transportation problems and the poll stations were far from where they lived.”
The Observatory of the Church for Social Affairs (OIPAS), which has been monitoring elections in Timor-Leste since 2009, said that while the 2022 presidential elections were reliable, free, transparent, and fair, some problems remained.
The group noted in its report on the 2022 presidential polls: “Considering that every electoral period,
many voters did not have the possibility of returning to their geographical locations to cast their right of vote. That is why the participation rate in the elections did not reach more than 90 percent.”
Some voters also said they were unable to vote due to delays in the process or lack of cooperation between the universities, head villages, and STAE.
STAE Director-General Acilino Manuel Branco said: “In the electoral context, the Ministry of State Administration, through STAE, is thinking about finding solutions to the people's problems.”
He vows for more information, education, and communication campaigns to inform voters about the polling procedures and that his agency will look for possible mechanisms to address various problems, such as the locations of polling stations.
“PVC is one mechanism we provided to accommodate the demands of our citizens,” Branco said. “You saw no more people worried about returning to their regions, no more people taking buses, or their desire to return to their place of origin. I think (PVC) is an effective and adequate way to manage the elections.”
Call for better elections
Branco said that while STAE and CNE are the main government entities overseeing the country’s elections, he also called for every citizen to help guarantee a successful poll.
“In reality, there was misunderstanding and misinformation of cooperation in the implementation process from the start. We will evaluate to make the process better,” he said.
He called on voters to follow election procedures, including updating their election cards before the polls. Branco also called for better cooperation between community leaders, universities and the PSC during elections.
The CNE acknowledged that Timor-Leste managed to hold good and successful presidential elections in 2022 even though the implementation had many problems.
"As we all know that in 2022, Timor Leste held successful elections in accordance with the existing principles of impartiality, transparency, independence, professional work and accountability, and the results were no question,” CNE Commissioner Odete Maria Belo stated. “However, the implementation on the ground faced many obstacles, including at PVCs.”
Addressing the lack of information
Concerns were raised on the voters’ lack of information regarding the election procedures, including the registration time to participate in PVCs as well as coordination between and among the agencies concerned.
“There was not a good coordination between ministries and election management bodies. For example, when the forms were distributed from STAE to UNTL University, only a few students from the faculties submitted the forms to the minister of education but the minister of education did not submit it according to the date set by STAE,” Belo said.
She said: “A further solution is that STAE must provide information through the media, such as television, radio, online media, Facebook, WhatsApp groups, among others, so that all informed people can register themselves.”
Digitalizing the elections
According to Ligia Tomas Correia, National University of East Timor (or Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e/UNTL): “From the start, we always face challenges, normally in all countries, but from the University, we need to pay attention that, the coordination of this work feels very important to us.”
She also suggested to STAE tap digital platforms in the next elections. “We hope that in the future, we can improve the mechanism, so that all students and citizens can take part in elections. The university suggests that the relevant parties work for all elections. We are now in a digitized world. My advice: we don't need to distribute forms, we create a digital mechanism that only provides links, and each voter fills it out.”
“We can apply the mechanism that uses digitalization modality, and coordinate with the IT Department of UNTL, I feel they can provide the high competence to help carry out this work," Correia said.
First published on Radio Rakambia, "East Timor: Fighting Confusion and Voter Disenfranchisement during Elections" (click here for the Tetum version) is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.