GJ Burchall – The first of many things that strike you at polling places in Timor-Leste is the total lack of assaults on voters by how-to-vote card boosters – the sort that swarm all over Australian voters like demented, malaria-lugging mosquitos.
Party flags, banners and shills must keep at a respectful 25-metre distance. Ditto the automatic weapons.
It was different in the weeks leading up to election day. Rival flags were flown outside houses and shops, adorned cars, mikrolets and motorbikes (some pillion riders even wore large flags as capes, which made them look like party superheroes as they shot past).
Parties were assigned rally days on a clogged campaign calendar and allocated streets over which they could string their pennons. All day and into the early evening, traffic on main thoroughfares was blocked by trundling trucks, whose open trays carried mobs of chanting, flag-flapping youths.
Timor-Leste is providing a universal politics tutorial – they have won the right to negotiate a legal maritime boundary in the South China Sea.
In Australia, not only is truck-bed travelling banned, but you'd struggle to find this level of election enthusiasm.
This is, no doubt, due to its compulsory, chore-like, non-democratic, fine-threat essence. Timor-Leste, in contrast, unable to vote for 500 years, has warmly embraced the activity. Voting is not compulsory, yet they can boast regular turnouts of over 80 per cent from 860,000 registered voters, even if some must travel great distances to do so.
"Your mission is to observe the election," iterated the agent at the official briefing:
"You've all studied the protocol manual, so you know how things are supposed to run. If you do see any breaches by electoral officers, under no circumstances engage: do not interfere or try to 'correct' them. Just make a note, stick it in your report."
We glorious 43 were a delegation of volunteers convened by the Australian East Timor Association and Victoria University, just one of several international gangs who descended upon Timor-Leste to testify if the ballot was held freely and fairly. Or not.
Said mission began in the pre-dawn dark outside the Dili hotel in which many of the Australian observers were lodged. It got off to an immediately rocky start. (The whole day would prove to be rocky but that was due to road conditions.) Our driver proved to be a no-show. The day before had been Restoration of Independence Day, so we suspected he was happily embroiled in an all-night celebration, or else suffering its after-effects.
There we were, in our daggy emblazoned polo shirts and huge lanyard IDs, in a desperate appeal for a new charioteer. We needed to get to a polling place to evince the opening of the ballot, which involved an election officer showing the empty box to the assembled to attest to its emptiness, then seal it shut with a numbered tag.
Finally, a driver with an off-duty mikrolet was engaged and we raced off to our first location.
This Election Day, being a Sunday, a pre-mass crowd awaited the 7 AM poll opening. Voters queued, showed their ID cards, picked up a ballot paper and disappeared into a cardboard cubicle.
Vote lodged, they dip their forefinger into an inkpot as extra proof (and insurance) that they have had their one vote. The ballot paper was gargantuan for such a small constituency. It was about A3 size and displayed the names and coloured logos of the 17 parties up for consideration. Voters did not need to number each box. Or even one box. Instead of a pencil, each booth is equipped with a six-inch nail on a string. Simply punch a hole in the box you favour. This will be important at the day's end.
Meanwhile, over at the main hospital, there was considerable consternation. There had been a belated attempt by the Government to introduce parallel (absentee) voting but it failed to be ratified before the deadline. This meant patients, their visitors and even some rostered staff could not vote if they were not registered in Dili district.
In contrast and dependent on the period of incarceration handed to them, the guests of the central prison knew damn well where they'd be on 21 May.
Voting there was, as elsewhere, orderly and peaceful and most probably a welcome break in routine.
The team bounced around the rutted roads of outer Dili to inspect the action at these and other locations. Most of the polling stations were in schools and community halls, as in Australia, but with added sticky humidity.
A few times we needed to abandon the mikrolet to trek up excuses for goat tracks to reach an isolated station.
A legislative change made in 2016 may help remove power from political candidates threatening to disrupt democracy.
By lunch, the queues were no more and an expectant lull settled. Another contrast to Australia was that there were no fundraiser snags-in-bread on offer, so we betook ourselves to an outdoor beachside restaurant for some restorative food and beer.
We took our time (well, the service did) as it was clear that the majority of Timorese democracy-worshippers had voted pre- or post-mass.
And we needed to observe the 3 PM close of polls.
Back we trundled to one of our earlier locations in Liquica (about 35 kilometres west of Dili).
Liquica is a pleasant, shady town with a haunted past. During WW2, the Japanese constructed a concentration camp into which were herded Portuguese nationals. In 1999, the pro-Indonesian militia massacred dozens of Timorese – mostly children and the elderly – who had sought sanctuary in the local church.
But we were out there to check the seal numbers on the boxes, watch them be opened and the votes tipped out. We were not alone. Aside from the electoral staff, shrew-eyed party scrutineers (fiskais) held a watching brief. These spotters were not supposed to display party affiliation, but their uniform choice of T-shirt colours made loyalties pretty transparent.
They were there – as were we – while electoral staff, who sat in a circle on the floor, sifted through ballots from a pile in the middle. They unfolded each paper and laid it flat. This took quite some time, as the ballots had needed to be folded small to fit in the box slot.
Finally, the poll station manager started to work through the pile, holding each sheet up so all could see the nail hole. Scrutineers scrutinised. Villagers outside the room peered over a five-foot wall to watch. The manager called each paper and it was added to a butcher paper tally sheet stuck on the wall behind him. They will be counted again at electoral HQ in Dili.
We dutifully observed this for a couple of hours, then decided to head back to Dili to beat the early sunset.
We'll meet again the next day to be debriefed with the other teams, compare impressions, collaborate on our report and attend a thank you (obrigadu) function at the Australian embassy.
"Nobody forces them to vote or punishes them if they don't," remarked one of our team. "They actually want to vote."
True. The Timorese are not jaded or cynical about so-called democracy. Yet.
[GJ Burchall is a journalist, scriptwriter and educator who was born and bred in Melbourne.]