Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections: Hard Choices, Hard Times

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Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections: Hard Choices, Hard Times

Timor-Leste’s election comes at a critical time in the country’s development.

Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections: Hard Choices, Hard Times
Credit: Flickr/ Kate Dixon

In July, Timorese voters will go to the polls for the second time this year to elect the country’s parliament. The recent presidential election, held on March 20, witnessed a clear victory by former parliament chief Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres, a candidate strongly backed by former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. The result prolonged the debate that the country’s leadership is still largely personality-driven, as it continues to be dominated by high-profile resistance leaders.

In the parliamentary elections, to be held on July 22, 21 political parties are set to contest 65 seats in the national parliament. This election is particularly significant, as it will again test the strength of the new coalition of the two largest political parties in Timor-Leste — the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) — that was formed in early 2015.

This time around, the national mood is slightly different compared to previous elections. Unlike previous elections, where peace and security dominated the agenda, now, the most important policy issue may very well be the most important problem facing the country today: the economy. As recent polls conducted by the Asia Foundation (AF) and the International Republic Institute (IRI) indicated, the percentage of Timorese believing that the country is moving in the right direction is decreasing.

The 2016 Tatoli! Public Opinion Poll by the AF showed that “Fewer people in 2016 feel that the country is going in the Right Direction versus the Wrong Direction than in 2014. In 2016 only 58 percent of respondents felt that the country is going in the right direction (compared to 73 percent in 2014); conversely 32 percent of respondents felt the country is going in the wrong direction (up from 25 percent in 2014).”

Meanwhile, the IRI survey indicated that there has been a decrease of 15 percent, from 49 percent to 34 percent, in Timorese who think that things are going in the right direction for the country.

At the institutional level, Timor-Leste’s democratic institutions have been under constant criticism in recent times. The “national unity” government formed by the two major political forces – the CNRT and FRETILIN – from the government’s point of view is a necessary pact to secure peace and stability in the long term. But, at the same time, one of the practical implications of such a move is the clear absence of a strong opposition. This is seen by many critics as a threat toward Timor-Leste’s democratic institutions.

The political context for the upcoming parliamentary election is interesting. The issue of sustainable economy is increasingly gaining attention from the Timorese. The AF poll showed that 32 percent of the respondents viewed economic issues, including diversifying Timor-Leste’s economy, as the top priority in the country. The economy issue is not new, but it has been a persistent issue and that will continue to pose a challenge for whoever forms the next government.

As one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world, one persistent discussion in Timor-Leste is how to avoid the resource curse. Several policies have been put in place to avoid the paradox of plenty, with the main intention being to use oil revenues as the basis to finance other developmental needs. All major parties are committed to tackling this issue. However, after 15 years of independence, almost 90 percent of state revenue is still derived from petroleum.

Agriculture and tourism are frequently regarded as alternative sectors that need to be developed to diversify the economy. The key question is how to achieve that. While everyone seems to be clear about the importance of economic diversification, why has little been done to overcome the issue? Thus far, the current government’s approach involves emphasizing physical infrastructure and two development poles: the Zonas Especiais de Economia Social de Mercado (ZEESM) project (or special economic and social market zones) in Oecusse and Suai Supply Base. At the same time, an economic reform program is also being undertaken. But like any reforms involving structural problems that have been embedded in societal history, it will take a long process, with trials and errors before finding the real remedies.

Alongside the economic diversification issue, another issue that stands out is unemployment. This is particularly critical given that around 70 percent of Timorese are below 30 years old. This could be a key determinant factor in this election. This election is also characterized by the high portion of the population who are first-time voters. In Timor Leste, the voting age is 17 years old.

Providing social services to the growing population is another challenge. While infrastructure has been receiving the biggest portion of Timor-Leste’s annual budget for the past decade, grievances about poor infrastructure continue. Timor-Leste will need to continue to develop roads, water and sanitation, irrigation, and basic infrastructure to provide public services.

On top of that, there is also concern that the development in the past decade has been heavily focused on Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, alone. The growing gap between Dili and the other 12 districts is another issue. The situation has triggered a sense of being marginalized by the local elites, as Timor-Leste is still a highly rural society.

The country is racing against time to solve these massive challenges. For the next few years, if Timor-Leste continues to rely on a single account – the Petroleum Fund – to pay public servants, subsidize veterans, provide social services, and finance mega projects, the current development process could prove an unsustainable one. Therefore, the election this time around is not merely about who will be in power. More importantly, it will determine how the elected representatives and the elected government affect the way the country is developed, including the path that Timor-Leste is taking.

A quick look at social media posts shows that resistance leaders turned political figures — like Xanana, Lú-Olo, and Mari Alkatiri, Timor-Leste’s first prime minister — continue to dominate the discussion. Both polls by the IRI and AF pointed to the same trend. In addition, Taur Matan Ruak, the former president of the republic, is seen as a potential contender for this election with his new party, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP).

In terms of policy differences, the Xanana-led CNRT’s policies are based on the 2030 Strategic Development Plan, which aimed for Timor-Leste to become a middle-income country by 2030. FRETILIN is comfortably confident, after securing Lú-Olo’s election as the fourth president of Timor-Leste. Its programs offer a “balance” between growth and sustainable development. The newcomer, the PLP, aims to challenge the existing development path by offering resource distribution and investment in basic needs.

FRETILIN and CNRT are still the dominant powers in the country, as revealed by the polls conducted by the IRI and AF. Interestingly, the IRI poll showed that 46 percent of the people are still undecided. While it is still premature to predict the outcome of the election, one thing is for sure – young voters will help decide this election, and their loyalties are up for grabs.

Guteriano Neves is Timorese independent researcher and a postgraduate student at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

Khoo Ying Hooi, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.