Creative’s Jeff Fischer On Elections, Conflict, and Justice

September 1, 2009


The tenth anniversary of the Popular Consultation in East Timor is an appropriate time to examine the experience of voting and its aftermath in order to both appreciate a decade of peacebuilding and extract lessons applicable to future events. The August 30, 1999 balloting was a non-binding referendum on whether the province of East Timor should be granted a special autonomy status within Indonesia instead of outright independence from Indonesia. As a result, a “no” vote on the ballot question was an implicit vote for independence. If the question failed, the opportunity for independence emerged. The election results were 78.5 percent against the special autonomy status and 21.5 percent were in favor.

Under agreements signed May 5, 1999 by the United Nations (UN) and the governments of Portugal and Indonesia, the UN was mandated to supervise and administer the election. The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1246 under the leadership of Ian Martin as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. There have been only a few occasions where the international community has been mandated to supervise and conduct an election. Other examples include Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eastern Slavonia, and Kosovo. In addition to being the Chief Electoral Officer for the Popular Consultation, I served as the director of elections, that is, the chief administrative officer, in two other such internationally conducted elections – Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996 and Kosovo in 2000. While each of these experiences holds its own set of lessons, it is the case of the Popular Consultation that provides dramatic and instructive insights into the relationship of elections, conflict, and justice.

First, the aftermath of the Popular Consultation dramatizes the potentially lethal dimension to elections. During the post-election violence which was aimed at pro-independence supporters, East Timor experienced what was perhaps the largest loss of life surrounding an electoral event, with deaths and injuries reported to be in the hundreds if not thousands. Tens of thousands of Timorese were displaced from their homes. This experience was a vivid illustration of the importance of election security as an overriding concern in the conduct of potentially volatile voting. The concept of election security should be considered in a more expansive manner than having military or police protection alone. The Indonesian military and police had agreed to provide election security and the facts speak for themselves. Election security means preparing the political foundation for electoral competition to take place. It also means dispute resolution mechanisms, opportunities for continuing dialogue among political rivals, and codes of conduct. And, in many respects, election security is dependent upon the existence of institutions, domestic or international depending upon the election, that effectively regulate political competition and enforce electoral rules.

Next, electoral justice must be conclusive. The only person prosecuted as a perpetrator of the violence was militia leader Eurico Guterres. On April 7, 2008, the Indonesian Supreme Court reversed his sentence of ten years in prison on the grounds that he was not responsible for the behavior of his followers, the Dili-based Aitarak (Thorn) militia. So, despite the heinous behavior of pro-Indonesia militia with names such as Halilintar (Thunderbolt), Mati Hidup Demi Integrasi (Live or Die for the Sake of Integration), and Besi Merah Putih (Iron Red and White – the colors of the Indonesian flag), the lack of genuine prosecution of the perpetrators by the international community or Indonesian authorities is an injustice that is likely to remain unchanged.

Third, events such as the Popular Consultation possess such a robust political imperative that they are going to happen one way or another. After a militia attack on a humanitarian convoy in the town of Liquica on July 4, 1999, UNAMET senior staff recommended to Ian Martin that election preparations be suspended until the violence was quelled. However, it was the Timorese who appealed to continue the process. The UN Secretariat in New York also recommended against a suspension. After decades of struggle and negotiation the Popular Consultation offered the best hope for independence and that possibility was now within reach. Election preparations were never suspended.

The Popular Consultation is a lesson in political courage. This courage was shown by the Timorese voters who turned out in convincing numbers to register and cast their ballots. It was exhibited by the Timorese polling station workers, some of whom were killed transporting ballots to the counting center. It was demonstrated by the UNAMET and Electoral Assistance Division staff who stayed focused and accomplished their mission despite the violence. In 2000, the UNAMET staff was awarded the Elie Wiesel Ethics Award. The award was accepted on behalf of UNAMET by UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette in New York.

Finally, the Popular Consultation is an example of the durability of electoral process as an instrument of governance. Despite the violence and the non-binding nature of the vote, the nation of Timor-Leste emerged as a result. If elections are conducted in a principled manner according to international standards, if there is genuine political competition, if independent monitors can validate the process, and if the turnout of voters is substantial, it is difficult for opponents to discredit the outcomes. The Indonesian national legislature, the People’s Representative Council, had to recognize that all these factors were in place and that the election results reflected the will of the Timorese people. But, that was ten years ago. And, after other difficult periods, Timor-Leste is on a positive trajectory for peace and state building. So, despite the firepower used to attempt to thwart the conduct of the Popular Consultation, its results proved to be bulletproof.

Jeff Fischer

Team Leader, Elections and Political Processes


Sign Up

For our mailing list


Comments are closed.