The Trouble With Timor-Leste’s Consensus Politics

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The Trouble With Timor-Leste’s Consensus Politics

Stability could not come at the expense of democracy.

Politicians must sometime feel as though they can never win. For most of the last 15 years since Timor-Leste gained its independence, it has been marred by political division and partisanship, which exploded violently in 2006 when a dispute between regional officers in the military escalated into nationwide unrest. Today, the problem is the opposite: there is not enough division.

In 2015 the two largest political parties – FRETILIN and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) – reached what is widely considered to be a power-sharing agreement. CNRT leader Xanana Gusmão stepped down as prime minister in February that year and nominated as his successor the former health minister and FRETILIN lawmaker, Rui Maria de Araújo. Along with the backing of some smaller parties, this “unity government” now has a majority in the National Parliament, meaning Timor-Leste is without an effective opposition.

This consensus irked President Taur Matan Ruak, who decided last year to take it upon himself to be the one to hold the government to account (not strictly the purpose of his role). In February 2016, he stood before the country’s parliamentarians and announced: “The state of Timor-Leste is far too centralized. It centralizes skill, power, and privileges. It excessively wastes resources, allowing thousands of Timorese to become second-class citizens.”

Without an effective opposition, he said, the country’s leaders were becoming more nepotistic and wasteful. Rauk is expected to step down as president before this year’s general election, predicted to take place in July, and run for prime minister with the backing of a newly created political party, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP).

Before the parliamentary elections, East Timorese vote to choose the next president. Both FRETILIN and the CNRT are looking likely to back the same candidate, Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, the president of FRETILIN, although the CNRT has yet to formally back him. There are few indications, however, that it will come up with its own candidate with only a month to go.

There were rumors late last year that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president José Ramos-Horta would run again for the post this year. This now appears not to be the case. Ramos-Horta announced last month that he would not stand as a candidate, according to a Portuguese-language newspaper. Other presidential candidates include António “Fatuk Mutin” Maher Lopes, who is reportedly running with the backing of the small Socialist Party of Timor, and José António de Jesus das Neves, a former deputy commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, who is running as an independent.

So what does this mean? Well, should Lu Olo win the presidential race, and FRETILIN and the CNRT win a majority of the seats at the general election (which is likely to be the case, though they will be campaigning separately) then the FRETILIN-CNRT alliance will have complete control over the executive if the unity government continues post-election. Ruak and the PLP may well win some seats in parliament, they will have an uphill struggle to secure enough MPs to form a viable opposition.

Some contend that unity between FRETILIN and the CNRT is justifiable, since it means the scenes that unfolded in 2006 are unlikely to reoccur. And the country, which desperately needs to develop economically and socially, will no longer be plagued by infighting in the National Parliament over legislation.

There are also suggestions the public is happy with the arrangement. A poll conducted in November by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-based nonprofit, found 74 percent of East Timorese thought the government was doing a good job, and 72 percent thought Timor-Leste will be “better off” in years to come. In terms of infrastructure, a high number of respondents thought things had improved over the course of the year: 79 percent for healthcare, 78 percent for education, and 71 percent for electricity. Though only 29 percent saw improvements in the country’s enfeebled road network, compared to 32 percent who thought it was getting worse.

“The optimistic outlook and enthusiasm for democracy displayed in this poll are highly encouraging,” IRI Regional Director for Asia, Derek Luyten, said in a statement. “Ahead of the upcoming presidential election, it is crucial that Timorese political leaders seize upon this popular goodwill to address the issues of greatest concern to citizens, and take steps to ensure citizens are well-informed of how and when to vote.”

Still, this is only half of the picture. A report published last month by the Asia Foundation , a nonprofit international development organization, found that the majority of residents in the capital, Dili, fear they could be evicted from their homes should a draft law currently being debated in parliament go through. If the law is passed, said the Asia Foundation’s deputy country director in Timor-Leste, Todd Wassel, “we estimate a quarter of Dili would not be protected under the new law, so they wouldn’t have any legal tenure security on the land where they’re currently living.” The report described land dispossession and conflict as the “dormant giants” affecting the country’s stability.

Consensus, according to Ruak, only works in the interest of the ruling elite. According to the outgoing president, the government does “not use unanimity to solve [Timor-Leste’s] issues; they use it for power and privilege. Brother Xanana takes care of Timor while Brother [Alkatiri] takes care of Oecussi.” Oecussi is a small enclave in Indonesian West Timor, where a costly Special Social Market Economy Zone is currently in development. In 2013, Mari Alkatiri, the Secretary-General of FRETILIN, was chosen by Gusmão to preside over this economic zone.

Timor-Leste’s problems, however, tend to fall into the categories of “what-ifs.” What if violence breaks out again (unlikely) and what if its oil and gas reserves run out (incredibly likely), as I have considered previously?

Should the unity government survive after this year’s elections, there is little to suggest it would turn away from the economic policy it has followed for a number of years: growing state budgets, a lethargic diversification of the economy, dependence on its sovereign wealth fund, and large infrastructure projects that (not always unfairly) have been dubbed vanity projects.

The division that has arisen in East Timorese politics, going into an election year, was summed up in a brief report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, published January 16, which stated that the elections will pit “the supporters of the unity government against those who focus on corruption and claim that the government is wasting the country’s petroleum wealth on trophy projects.”

The question, therefore, is whether political peace and stability justify the costs that come with consensus. Indeed, whether they justify the possible weakening of the country’s proud democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Democracy Index ranked Timor-Leste 44th out of 167 places, the highest of all Southeast Asian countries. The 2016 edition of the same index bumped Timor-Leste up one place, still the highest in the region.

This is quite a feat for a nation that only gained its independence 15 years ago. But it is a feat that could be so easily undone should the government be bereft of an effective opposition for the next five years. Arguably, the government needs to be held accountable during the next few years more than any other time since 2002; the decisions it makes will be among the most important in the nation’s short history.