High hopes for peaceful elections in East Timor
|9th October, 2009|
DILI: Hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are expected to vote in village elections on Friday, in the seventh election the fledgling nation has held since its 1999 vote to split from Indonesia.
Past elections in East Timor have been marred by tension and fighting and Friday’s polls are being seen as a test of the country’s political maturity as the United Nations mission prepares to wind down its operations.
UN Police and the national force, the PNTL, are jointly handling security for the elections and extra officers have been deployed to all polling station areas, UN Police Commissioner Luis Carrilho told AFP.
“We are not expecting any incidents, but if any incident were to happen, we would be ready to deal with it,” Carrilho said, citing last month’s peaceful August 30 celebrations and Tour de Timor bike race as signs of stability.
Village councils help find solutions to community problems that impact directly on security, as disputes are often solved through community leaders.
The 2004-5 village elections were predominantly peaceful, but in 2006 a split in the armed forces incited clashes in the streets of Dili, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee their homes.
Fighting around the 2007 parliamentary election led to two deaths while in February 2008, Jose Ramos-Horta, who won the 2007 presidential election, was targeted by assassins, leading to a lockdown of Dili.
In June this year, an independent study found that “political party leaders and their supporters are largely responsible for triggering violence” during elections in the mainly Catholic former Portuguese colony.
But parties are not allowed to campaign in this week’s polls and candidates are not supposed to represent any political camp.
“In the last suco (village) elections, candidates came from political parties, but now they must be independent,” Electoral Commission official Arif Abdullah Sagran said.
People are voting on competing “packets” of candidates for suco councils, but about 30 villages have only one packet people can vote for.
“In some sucos, the communities have effectively already chosen their leaders, so they only have one candidate,” Sagran said.
Other candidates missed the deadline for registration while some were unable to meet the criteria for putting their packets together.
Jeremy Gross, technical advisor for elections for the Asia Foundation, downplayed such issues and hoped the village polls would provide organisational lessons for general elections in three years.
“It will be good to have elections that are mundane and routine, rather than with violence. I hope it can be a lesson learned for the parliamentary election in 2012,” he said.
Alexandrino Chaves, current chief of suco Gricenfor in Dili, said trouble was unlikely but political differences could still prove problematic.
“I expect it will be peaceful all over East Timor, but I can’t guarantee this 100 percent, especially in areas where there has been conflict in the past,” he said.
Although peaceful elections may be a sign of progress in East Timor, there are few indicators that the 1.1 million people living in the 442 sucos have seen much change in their lives over the past 10 years.
This week, the UN unveiled its annual human development rankings, and East Timor slid 12 places to 162 out of 182 countries.
The country achieved formal independence from Indonesia in 2002.