by Kennedy Graham
East Timor is probably unique. Possibly the last colonial enclave to attain independence from a European power through UN midwifery, straddling strategically critical deep-water straits between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and struggling to emerge from least developed status near the bottom of the UNDP’s Human Development Index.
Also unique, given the above, in its defiant commitment to democracy and a self-generated pass out of the gaol that is post-colonial and post-occupation civil strife.
I am in East Timor as part of a three-person NZ mission observing the five-yearly parliamentary elections held this past Saturday. Our job, along with 597 others, has been to observe the elections and ensure that they have been properly run and are free and fair.
So, out before dawn on Saturday to front up to one of the 880 polling stations scattered across this small nation of 650,000 voters. As the sun casts its first rays on the surrounding mountain-tops, people line up to be the first to cast their parliamentary vote as the booths open at 7.00 am.
Eight hours and four polling stations later, we watch an elderly bearded man cast the last vote and a few hapless late-comers get turned away. By and large, it resembles a NZ election.
Except for what occurs next. The scrutineers (‘party agents’ over here) play an extraordinary role. In New Zealand, a party scrutineer sits meekly in an assigned seat, observes the proceedings, and talks only, and only as necessary, to the chief official present. Over here, there are more of them, and they play an extraordinarily active role.
Once the voting stops, the chief official and his many assistants open the ballot boxes with great and solemn ceremony, upend each one onto a table, flatten the ballot papers, count them to ensure precise consistency with the electoral names crossed off (3,000 or so per station), then call each vote out in a loud voice, holding the ballot paper up for the scrutineers to visually perceive the accuracy of the recorded vote.
This can take from 3.00 pm to after midnight. The scrutineers feel free to interact with the officials, occasionally in a challenging way. The harried, and occasionally harassed officials are nearly dropping dead with exhaustion by the end of the process.
But it is clearly a critical, component of the public transparency of the democratic process of this brave, and fledging, democracy. An almost unique local authentication process before the numbers are entered into the central system at the Electoral Commission in that capital, Dili.
They deserve their democratic rights, here in East Timor. After all, their fathers and mothers fought, and died, for it.