The perils of instant reportage were evident in the coverage of East Timor’s elections this week.

On Tuesday, early results from Dili were proclaimed to show Fretilin’s candidate Lu Olo in third place. This announcement (from the regrettably partisan spokesperson for the National Electoral Commission (CNE), Father Martinho Gusmao, who had publicly endorsed one of the opposition Presidential candidates) created a media climate in which an entirely predictable event — the sharp rise in Fretilin candidate Lu Olo’s vote when Eastern districts votes came in – came to be viewed to be under a cloud a suspicion. 

Mounting opposition claims of irregularities in the conduct of the election soon followed. And there are numerous reports of low-level intimidation, on both sides of the political divide, which should be investigated. However, as the 1999 referendum should have amply demonstrated, the East Timorese people are not easily intimidated in voting a certain way by anyone. It is becoming clear that some opposition claims about the conduct of the election are grossly exaggerated, or at best, pre-emptory and ill-informed.

In particular, claims that some 30% of registered voters did not vote are quickly dissolving upon inspection by monitoring teams.

According to Damien Kingsbury of the Victorian Local Governance Association electoral observer group, it’s now clear that poor registration practices, particularly the issuing of new cards to those who held them from previous elections, has resulted in a grossly inflated “registered voter” figure. For example, some 6% of the entire roll is now deceased.

An even larger discrepancy appears to be the product of the double listing of previously registered voters who obtained new cards for this election. Though these people may have voted legitimately, they will also appear as “did not vote” registrants. Indelible ink marking the index finger of voters seriously limits the chances of double voting for this class of voter. In sum, the gap between registered voters and cast votes is much narrower than suggested, at around 7%, and voter turnout was in fact as high as 93%.

It now seems that the sole substantive issue is the 10% of votes that were declared invalid — and these will now be subject to a monitored recount in Dili. In other words, the 166,000 “missing voters” have essentially been accounted for.

With 2,000 international monitors, a UN police presence, and squads of party scrutineers, the scope for widespread electoral abuse was fairly limited. For all the legitimate concern about the potential excesses of party militants on all sides, neutral observers should be aware that ritual claims of foul play are now part and parcel of the ongoing conflict within East Timor’s political elite.

While some of these reflect very legitimate concerns over blurred boundaries between governing party and state, others are now commonplace vehicles for political ambition which sees reward in continuing the ongoing climate of political instability. The international press should be subjecting opposition claims to greater scrutiny, as it should with Fretilin’s own claims of voting irregularities, which, in inverse proportion to opposition complaints, have trailed off as their vote has increased.

Importantly, neither the international monitors, nor the CNE itself consider there are any grounds to invalidate the election result.

Much of this confusing reportage has occluded the real story — the significant fall in support for Fretilin. Barring a very low voter turnout, Jose Ramos-Horta will almost certainly win the second round, as other opposition candidates swing their vote behind him.

This vote is a promising development, and one which clearly signals the likely emergence of a genuine multi-party democracy in East Timor in the coming parliamentary elections on June 30.

Inevitably, part of a wider problem with political accountability in a country without mature democratic institutions has been a weak, marginalised opposition in the wake of Fretilin’s dominant showing at the 2001 elections. While this election is clearly an important milestone in East Timor’s political development, the emergence of a genuine democratic political culture will require all parties to accept the election results; not just Fretilin.