Time to vote

Colimau Travel Blog

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Protecting democracy high in the mountains

Villagers were assembling outside the polling station at 6.30am.  It was a notable event in their lives.  Voting for the Chefe Suco (literally translated: Chief Village) only happens every 5 years so it’s pretty exciting stuff.


I had completed my ablutions and the PNTL (Raul) told me I had been invited to the house across the road for breakfast.  Not wanting to offend and thinking I was close enough to assume my duties if called upon (plus the fact the other PNTL on the road outside to watch proceedings) I decided I would have a hot coffee to help me survive the day.

Villages arrive early in the morning to vote
  For some reason I wasn’t convinced 1hr 15mins of broken sleep would be sufficient to help me do my best work over what could be another long day.


The house was a bamboo mat walled “shanty” and had a dirt floor.  I guess it was pretty typical of most Timorese homes.  The room we were in was immediately inside the door and was set up as a reception or dining room with a table and a collection of chairs.  No-one would sit until I was seated but I chose the chair by the door (still thinking of my duties).  When the coffee and rolls came out I graciously accepted a coffee but continually declined the offer of breakfast rolls.  The coffee was so thick and sweet it didn’t have a recognisable coffee flavour but I knew it would keep me away and sipped it as quickly as the temperature would allow.


I had time to survey the room and noticed the walls were adorned with what looked like pages from a magazine – colour glossy pictures of random things that must have appealed to the family.

Sealed boxes are opened to access the ballot papers
  Two rooms went off from this room but I couldn’t see anything but a bit more dirt floor past a curtain that hung in the dorrway I assume led to the sleeping room or rooms.  A dog wandered out under the curtain and was ignored.  A pig then stuck it’s snout under the curtain and it was quickly shooed back into the dark recesses from wence it came.


I had already enquired at the house about the use of a toilet when I awoke but there is no water in the village, meaning no toilets.  I guess the corrugated roof was the only solid part of the structure and everything else seemed to be woven, walls, ceiling and sleeping mats (like the one provided to me last night) that I imagine are laid directly onto the dirt floor.


After my coffee I thanked the master of the house and of course the ladies that did all the work before I went back out into the sunlight.

Voting process explained
  The crowd was steadily growing but the mood was light and happy on the whole.  I found a perch a suitable distance from the station and accepted the cordial greetings from the parade of villagers that kept arriving.  Voting was meant to commence at 7am but the incumbent chefe was still causing problems.  The ballot box would not have it’s seals broken until all three candidates were in attendance and the chefe didn’t arrive for the ceremony until 8am.  Voting finally got underway at 8.45.


Nazmul arrived a short time later to collect me.  I had told him to stay until voting was underway at Teba Bui then make his way up to Male Ubu to check on Hu.  If everything was satisfactory there they were to both come up to Coli Mau to check on me.

  We stayed another half hour then I suggested we head down to the other two stations.

After voting comes the count
  Raul was happy things were well managed so we drove down the mountain to Teba Bui.


Everything was going very smoothly.  We stayed at each of the three polling stations for about an hour before moving onto the next.  There were no issues and in fact the locals from this area were enjoying the experience so much in both Male Ubu and Coli Mau they gathered into a circle and sang their traditional song about the process of election.  It was quite fantastic and very moving that such passion should be felt about the task.


After lunch I was starting to drag through lack of sleep and poor nourishment.  At 2pm I was sitting in the car listening to the radio reports from all over the district about stations that had finished voting and were now counting the votes.

Raul (PNTL) and I act as one of the officials during vote counting
  I could not understand how voting could be finished, the polls were not meant to close until 3pm and this was done by refusing to allow anyone arriving after that time to join any queue that was still formed.

  I was just about to make my report from Male Ubu when Almeiro came over to tell me Hu was having a problem.  I shot up to the polling station to see what was going on.  I found him in the building with a drunk man.  I asked about the situation and found out that the man had torn the ballot paper so had been refused permission to put it into the ballot box.  The chief STAE official had then discovered that he was not registered to vote at this station as he was born locally but no longer lived in the electorate.


The situation had halted voting and I was mindful of a group of 50-100 voters still queue outside.  I asked the official to continue the voting process while we discussed the problem outside.  Once there I asked how the man had got past the first official at the door, surely he should have been turned away there when his registration card was checked, the fact that he was intoxicated was another reason he should not have been allowed to enter but I was happy to keep to the fundamentals.  It seemed to me the problem lay with the STAE staff rather than the man – I was sure if I had asked to vote they would have turned me away, and for the same reason they should have turned this man away –I’m not entitled to vote at this station.

  That decided I let the man go on his way and again suggested the voters queuing be processed before we ran out of time.


Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple as that because the drunk man was now explaining the curious voters that he hadn’t experienced this kind of difficulty earlier in the day when he had voted for his father –Oh my god!!

  When I asked Almeiro to translate his story to me I asked to see his finger, sure enough one of them was bright purple proving he had dipped it into the ink bottle after voting.  I returned to the official that had stopped him placing the torn ballot paper into the box and asked him if he had seen the man dip his finger at that time.  The official was unable to confirm it either way, fortunately Hu had been right there and was able to say the man had not been into the ink bottle, therefore his finger had been dipped earlier.  We obviously had a fraudulent vote now.


I asked Nazmul to work with Almeiro and the PNTL to find out what they could from the man whilst I reported the incident to operations.  It was now close to 3pm and I still had two other polling centres to check after so many reports of early counting.

  After my report I directed Nazmul to stay with the PNTL to ascertain the details of the drunk man’s father.  It was likely this man was a party to his son’s offending and would also need dealing with.


I grabbed Almeiro and we shot down to Teba Bui where I found the vote count well under way.  I stopped the vote and explained to the official that breaking the sealed box before the end of the official voting period could mean the whole process was in jeopardy as theoretically a losing candidate could muster up more voters and have them here in time to vote.  They would then be unable to place their ballot into the secure box.  I didn’t stay to discuss it further, it was 2.50pm and I had a 20min drive up to Coli Mau, the problem station of our three.  I drove up in good time and found voting had not yet finished as there was a queue of about 10-15 voters still waiting.


I found Raul and together we were invited into the station to officiate as they broke the seals and completed the count.  Hu watched the crowd from outside so there were 4 of us cops and about 150 villages in and around the station.  I had seen a few young men with their faces covered when we arrived and I was suspicious that these might be the very type that the incumbent chefe may have employed to kill either of his rivals that might oust him.  Raul was not convinced there would be any trouble so this lightened my mood a little but I stayed on guard as I sat inside the station to watch proceedings.


The count took a couple of hours.  There were about 550 voters in this village and from start to the end of the count the numbers were very even as each individual ballot paper was removed from the box by the STAE Official, read out loud and held up so everyone gathered could see it for themselves.  It was a very open and honest way of counting and I wondered about the training we had been given about what to secure if there was an attempt to steal the votes, ballot box or register.  I wasn’t convinced the 4 of us would manage it.


At the end of counting the three candidates were within 27 votes of each other, the winner was ahead by just 8 votes.  Things were a little tense as each of the officials counted there totals and came up with different figures.  Several checks were made before it was decided a count would be made of the expended voting papers, unfortunately the books were not consistently prepared and some had 49 pages where others had 51.  After 2 hours of counting it was decided that the candidate that lead by 8 votes was indeed the successful candidate.  I never got to discover if the incumbent Chefe would have killed the other two candidates as it was he who took the election by 8 votes. 

  This was announced in the presence of all three men and again he kept everyone waiting.  When he arrived he was angry.  Even after his win was announced his surly mood didn’t change and he refused to shake the hand of one of the candidates.  I guess the rumour about Coli Mau being ready for a new chefe was right, after all 2/3 of voters didn’t vote for this guy.


Once everything was settled we quickly secured the election materials in our wagon and made my way back down the mountain to secure the other two sites.  The drama at Male Ubu was still going as the PBTL Commander had ordered us to arrest the drunken voter.  Unfortunately none of the offences surrounding elections are arrestable and I outright refused to allow any of my team to arrest the man.  Procedure dictated that STAE were required to report the matter to the prosecutor and we were then to provide our evidence gathered so the matter could be investigated by prosecutions in the future.

  In the end I asked Almeiro to explain to the man that he had committed offences and that we would like him to return with us to Maliana if he so wished.  I was made very clear to him that he was not under arrest but he was still proud of his adventures and was delighted to accompany us in our wagon.  It was almost a hero’s farewell he was given by the gathered masses who were still curious about the fuss.

  We loaded up the ballots and moved to Teba Bui.  There we found the PNTL and STAE officials had already departed without our escort.  I wasn’t too worried, our wagin was stuffed to almost overflowing with UNstaff, overnight bags, election materials, and drunken offenders anyway so we were good to go.


We made our way back to Bobonaro Sub-district HQ where we were all meeting so we could travel back to Maliana in convoy.  Considering we had all driven from our respective areas alone I didn’t really comprehend the need to travel in convoy, after waiting there an hour and hearing there were a couple of sites that were having to do a recount I decided our need to get our “prisoner” to Maliana was more important than being part of a 15 car convoy.  It was 9pm and the drunken man was starting to droop.  We still had a 45+ minute drive ahead of us.


Just after 10pm I was back at Filo Mena unclipping my holster.  We’d worked 39 hours straight and when all the stories came in our drunk and his fraudulent vote at Male Ubu was the second most exciting issue of the whole elections, the team at Atauro Island had seen some true disruptions.  Everywhere else in the country it had gone sooth as silk.

goezi says:
Kia ora Britt
Posted on: Oct 23, 2009
williamsworld says:
Wow, you are a part of history, and now I can say i experienced a little of it.

Posted on: Oct 21, 2009
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Protecting democracy high in the m…
Protecting democracy high in the …
STAE officials setting up
STAE officials setting up
Villages arrive early in the morni…
Villages arrive early in the morn…
Sealed boxes are opened to access …
Sealed boxes are opened to access…
Voting process explained
Voting process explained
After voting comes the count
After voting comes the count
Raul (PNTL) and I act as one of th…
Raul (PNTL) and I act as one of t…
photo by: goezi