Does Timor-Leste’s Upcoming Election Herald a More Inclusive and Progressive Democracy?

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Does Timor-Leste’s Upcoming Election Herald a More Inclusive and Progressive Democracy?

Next week’s election will feature more female candidates than ever, but their impact on the country’s patriarchal cultural norms remains to be seen.

Does Timor-Leste’s Upcoming Election Herald a More Inclusive and Progressive Democracy?

Election workers count ballots during the 2012 Timor-Leste presidential elections at a polling station in the capital Dili, March 17, 2021.

Credit: Sandra Magno/UNDP

Next week, Timor-Leste will hold the seventh presidential election that the country has conducted on its own since gaining its independence two decades ago. The March 19 poll is the first to take place since the COVID-19 pandemic, and will feature the largest-ever pool of candidates running for president, including four women, an apparent sign that the country is forging a more inclusive politics and moving beyond consensus politics and big man rule.

However, we should not be too quick to conclude that Timor-Leste is heading towards a more progressive form of democracy. The participation of more women in presidential elections may suggest greater inclusion and diversity, but it does not necessarily indicate immediate political change, nor the development of a more progressive politics. More worryingly, overemphasizing the intersectional diversity and difference of individual female candidates in terms of their competency without problematizing gender categories as a whole may inadvertently reinforce patriarchal values. This may eventually lead to a weakening of collective identity and power against long-standing patriarchal norms and structures.

What’s New in the 2022 Presidential Election?

Timor-Leste is a young democratic country with a semi-presidential and unicameral political system. Despite being a post-conflict country with limited economic development, it ranks as one of the most democratic nations in Southeast Asia, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index. Previous elections have been generally peaceful and calm and the country’s two main election institutions, the Technical Secretariat of Electoral Administration and National Commission of Elections, have demonstrated considerable competence in running elections without international assistance.

However, presidential elections have long been viewed as a competition among male resistance leaders, who have effectively taken turns serving in the role. This means that independent candidates who have no support from a party, or from Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic leader who has great personal influence on domestic politics, face extreme difficulty in competing. Independent candidates, who represent younger generations or minority groups with particular social identities and interests, not only have to overcome systematic restraints but also have to attract young voters for maximum support, most of whom were born after independence and lack clear political identities and experience in elections.

Increasing Inclusion and Diversity

At first glance, this election looks much the same as previous elections, but the field is more diverse than it seems. To be sure, it includes a number of male leaders from the older generation, such as the ex-general of Timor-Leste Defence Force, Lere Aman Timur, Rogerio Lobato, the former president, Jose Ramos-Horta, representing the National Congress of the Timorese Construction (CNRT), the current President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin), and Mariano Assanami Sabino of the Democratic Party.

However, the candidate list also features quite a few independent candidates, including four women, five former youth and student resistance leaders, and one former Catholic priest. It’s the first time in history that four women have participated in the presidential election, reversing a long-standing trend in which female candidates were almost invisible. These women are Isabel Ferreira, a human rights lawyer and the wife of current Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak; Armanda Berta dos Santos, the president of Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto) party and the current minister of social solidarity and inclusion; Angela Freitas, the president of the Workers’ Party and a former candidate in 2017 election; and Milena Pires, a women’s rights defender and former ambassador to the United Nations.

These women come from various backgrounds with differing socioeconomic statuses. For instance, dos Santos and Ferreira represent a significant divide along the lines of region, class and education. Ferreira is more conservative and urban-based while dos Santos is less privileged and hails from a rural area. These women also appeal to different policy priorities and values: While dos Santos focuses on strengthening state sovereignty in terms of security and the economy, Pires urges social justice for all, including freedom from violence. Yet all of these women have one commonality: their desire to be recognized as leaders in a male-dominated society notorious for not recognizing women’s contributions in politics, conflict, and the home.

In Timor-Leste, a nation dominated by the Catholic Church and characterized by a patriarchal culture, women have faced numerous barriers and have experienced various forms of injustice and violence in the current legal, political, social, and economic system. COVID-19 and its related restrictions, which failed to account for gender, followed by floods last April, ended up intensifying the hardships and violence faced by women in all aspects of their lives. Nevertheless, while almost 40 percent of parliamentarians are women, a result of a parliamentary quota system, women leaders in local politics are still limited.

Inclusion and Diversity Are No Panacea

Although the involvement of more women in elections may signal greater political diversity, it does not necessarily equate to the emergence of a more progressive politics. “Add women and stir” may be a formula for adding legitimacy to the election and hence maintaining the status quo. The quota system in the national parliament has forced a certain degree of inclusion. But stereotypes and categories constructed by and through women candidates during the election may end up reinforcing patriarchal values and the patriarchal order while subordinating and dividing women’s collective identity and power to resist these things.

For example, Ferreira says she has joined the election to defend the values of “faith, family, and homeland.” This underlines the important role of the heterosexual family as the foundation of the Catholic nation, where women are expected to be housewives and mothers in order to safeguard the family and nation. Ferreira has been actively practicing this “good woman” model without ever overstepping or contradicting her husband in public.

On the other hand, dos Santos is viewed as a woman with limited agency in opposition to other female candidates. Although she has been a veteran and has served for a long time in government and the national parliament, she was not expected to match the qualities of politicians for being absent from televised debate with other candidates and was even mocked as “a toy of Naimori (dos Santos’ husband)” on local news, after Naimori claimed that he would call the shots if dos Santos is elected. Intriguingly enough, supporters portrayed her as the “mother” of the party during the campaign, which parallels the gender discourse advanced by Ferreira’s candidacy.

Regardless of the image of the “good woman” promoted by Ferreira, or the example of the “incapable” women who advances her career by depending on her husband, as many have described dos Santos, it is obvious that women’s rights is viewed in terms of a liberal focus on individual identity and autonomy. By focusing on the achievements of individual women, discourses surrounding women’s agency can end up reinforcing patriarchy. For instance, neither candidate has promoted women’s rights or gender equality in their campaign; nor did either show up at the recent live talk show with the theme “Gender Equality Now to A Sustainable Future” that was held to commemorate International Women’s Day. Instead, they have sought to strengthen national identity, which often compromises progressive policies and programs fundamental to women’s emancipation in exchange for a status quo of peace and stability that favors men. Consequently, women’s collective identity and struggle against patriarchy is often forgotten, which risks dividing women and even weakening the potential of collective resistance of women against the existing patriarchal system.

Gender works both to include and constrain individual female leaders in Timor-Leste’s politics. Yet there is still hope for change. Regional and party divides have gradually reduced since the 2012 presidential election, opening up space for individual and social interests and identities within and beyond the regional and party line. Moreover, the twin crises and the political standoff between the Fretilin and CNRT have made people more and more impatient with the government’s slow and ineffective responses to their needs, pushing them to consider candidates with more responsiveness and accountability.

Now, more women are capable of and willing to take up leadership and decision-making roles with or without party support, along with other younger male candidates. It may be hard to say that these women will win the political fight or that women are the solutions to the problems inherent in the male-dominated politics of Timor-Leste, such as clientelism, corruption, and the instability inherent in the political system, but women’s participation in this month’s presidential election reminds us that their battle is also our battle, which won’t and cannot be won alone.