After Timor-Leste’s Election, a Young Democracy Looks Forward

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After Timor-Leste’s Election, a Young Democracy Looks Forward

The results are in from Timor-Leste’s parliamentary election. The hard part lies ahead.

After Timor-Leste’s Election, a Young Democracy Looks Forward

An election official holds a ballot during the counting process for parliamentary elections in Dili, Timor-Leste (July 22, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Lirio da Fonseca

On July 22, 77 percent of Timorese cast their votes in the Timor-Leste’s parliamentary election, which was contested by almost two dozen political parties in a country of just about 1.2 million people. This election witnessed the expected victory of the two major political parties, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). The final count of ballots showed that Fretilin led with almost 30 percent of the vote, securing 23 seats, while the CNRT, led by Xanana Gusmão, was running second with a slightly lower percentage of the vote and 22 seats.

The much talked about new People’s Liberation Party (PLP), led by Taur Matan Ruak, trailed in third place with about 10 percent of the vote and eight seats, and the Partido Democratico (PD) locked in seven seats. A small element of surprise came from the success of another new party, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), which gathered about 7 percent of the vote and five seats.

During the events leading up to the election day, the National Elections Commission (CNE) and the Technical Secretariat for Election Administration (STAE) conducted extensive civic and voter education programs. The CNE’s publication of the official campaign schedule helped not only locals but also media outlets and observers to cover campaign events. The election campaign has also proceeded peacefully, without any significant problems or instances of violence. Political debates were conducted vigorously.

Through the election, the Timorese showed how much they valued their hard-won democratic rights. Many  turned up on election day, even before the opening of polling centers. This is a remarkable year for a country that just gained its independence 15 years ago, as both presidential and parliamentary elections were organized in a peaceful manner (the presidential vote took place back in March). On this alone, the Timorese deserve credit for their successful conduct of elections, as this is a major achievement in the maturing of Timor-Leste’s young democracy. The country has been able to move forward through an understanding of forgiveness and an awareness that political stability is particularly crucial for a young democracy like Timor-Leste.

While negotiations are now still ongoing, both the Fretilin and the CNRT are anticipated to continue their de facto partnership to form a government. Whatever the make-up of the next government, it faces huge challenges and some very difficult negotiations on much-needed reforms. With half of Timor-Leste’s population living in poverty, the government will need to find ways to improve the livelihoods of its 1.2 million people.

The economy, corruption, and the government’s failure to utilize the wealth generated by oil resources to support development and create jobs dominated the political discourse during the political campaign. These issues will not go away until a feasible solution is crystallized. For example, the 20-year Strategic Development Plan (2011-2030), the “brainchild” of CNRT’s Gusmão, is in need of another revision in view of the public frustrations over widespread social and economic injustices in the country. At the end of the day, democratic leadership also requires a shift in Timor-Leste’s development principles.

From blogs, Facebook, public forums, and community spaces across Timor-Leste, the public sphere has been vibrant and dynamic during the election season. This is an indication of a popular interest in Timorese politics among its people. Public discourse is now much more important in the country than it was during the past.

For outsiders, the democracy in Timor-Leste can seem bewildering. Compared to many countries in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste is boldly democratic. But Timorese want to be better and are eager to see more. Timor-Leste is without a doubt better prepared to face the future than it was five years ago, at the last elections, but progress is long-term and could not be measured in months.

While democracy is flourishing in Timor-Leste, at the same time, there are problems. The political society, with its multi-party politics and public elections, has functioned somewhat well, for instance, with reasonably high voter turnouts. Yet the Fretilin and the CNRT are still the dominant powers in the country. A power-sharing agreement between them might arguably be the best model for Timor-Leste; however, the risk of a weak opposition voice remains a concern. This could potentially undermine the further development of democratic norms.

As the excitement and surprise at the results of the election begin to settle, decisions will be made about the formation of the next government and the appointment of ministers. The new government will basically need to tackle a series of unsolved problems that were left by the outgoing government. Increasing rural-based development is critical but it will not be simple; progress here is also intertwined with the issues of governance and balanced development. Over-dependence on foreign aid is gradually becoming another key challenge and the new government would want to avoid falling into the aid-dependency trap.

These are some of the issues that cannot be neglected in Timor-Leste’s political discourse, as the problems are obvious in every part of the country. The next government is going to have to do a lot of deal making. The worry, though, is that the capacity to do all this still remains quite limited.

Economically, the new government following the election will have much to do but will probably lack the capacity to get it all done. In economic and social terms, sustainable transformation in Timor-Leste requires a continuous investment in the capacity building and empowerment of its own people. The new government will have to work hard to prevent vested interests from leading the resource-rich country to fall prey to the “resource curse” as well as implement reforms in key areas that remain under-explored, such as agriculture and community-based tourism.

Meanwhile, whoever the next prime minister is, in five years’ time he or she will face the thorny question of how to bring this young democracy a step ahead by diversifying its economic opportunities and development as well as moving away from its aid and oil dependency. Ultimately, the real test for this young democracy’s survival is whether tolerance and understanding of the different aspirations of the people can prevail for the betterment of the country.

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