Will Elections Bring Timor-Leste Closer to a Stable Democracy?

  • Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Flag_of_East_Timor.svg&page=1
    Mar 15, 2012

    The presidential election campaign under way in Timor-Leste, a tiny nation on the southernmost fringe of the Indonesian archipelago, is being closely watched in Washington and New York, in Canberra, and in capitals around Southeast Asia. Much is at stake: whether the voting on March 17 remains peaceful and ushers in a period of political stability will help determine whether the United Nations will be able to end its peacekeeping mission by the year’s end and whether ASEAN eventually accepts Timor-Leste’s bid to join the 10-nation grouping. Amid the current U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, Washington has made it clear that Timor-Leste’s inclusion as another democratic voice in ASEAN would be welcome.

    The people of Timor-Leste are preparing to go to the polls Saturday to elect their next president. Parliamentary elections will follow in June. This is the second election cycle for the country of just over 1 million people that formally gained independence in 2002, and observers hope it will mark the consolidation of a peaceful democracy in the fledgling state. Timor-Leste experienced widespread political violence in 2006 and mob violence and arson following the 2007 elections. Current president José Ramos-Horta was shot and seriously injured in a 2008 failed assassination attempt.

    The United States has supported Timor-Leste since its independence, providing bilateral aid valued at $25 million in 2010, as well as multilateral aid through agencies such as the UN, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. Much of this aid is focused on promoting good governance, stimulating economic development, and supporting professionalization of the military and the police.

    The UN Security Council voted February 23 to extend its peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste, the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste or UNMIT, until the end of 2012. UNMIT was established in 2006 to stabilize Timor-Leste and halt the partisan violence that brought the country to the brink of civil war. Timor-Leste was administered by the UN from 1999 until 2002 after a 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia, which had occupied the country from 1975. Widespread violence and retribution, often supported by the Indonesian military, erupted after the referendum. Australia spearheaded the 1999 international intervention, giving Canberra a special interest in a peaceful and democratic Timor-Leste.

    UNMIT has provided critical assistance to prepare for the elections, but most election activities are handled by the National Election Commission and the Secretariat for Technical Electoral Support. Whether the elections are peaceful and a stable government is established will determine whether the country has made a successful transition from bullets to ballots.

    In late 2011 an ASEAN working group was established to draft a road map for Timor-Leste to become the 11th member of ASEAN. Singapore previously rejected the country’s application, saying it did not think Timor-Leste could contribute to the grouping’s goal of establishing an economic community by 2015. Timor-Leste is one of the least developed countries in the world with income levels similar to those in sub-Saharan Africa. Some 40 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

    Whoever controls the government after the elections will control the country’s Petroleum Fund, currently valued at $9.3 billion and created by oil and gas revenues from a joint project with Australia. The country’s economy is largely dependent on this fund and assistance from foreign donors. The government created a Strategic Development Plan for 2011–2015, paid for largely through the Petroleum Fund, but implementation of the plan has been haphazard. The poverty rate has fallen 10 percent since Timor-Leste started withdrawing money from the fund five years ago, but the current rate of withdrawal is probably not sustainable.

    If none of the presidential candidates wins a majority in the March 17 voting, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff April 14. Candidates run as independents, but many receive overt party backing, and the results will probably be a good indicator of how individual parties will fair in the June parliamentary elections. 

    Political parties in Timor-Leste remain highly personality-based and closely identified with their leaders. The presidency is mainly ceremonial, but the president grants permission to a party to form a new government, giving him a crucial political role. The country’s first two presidents, José Ramos-Horta and current prime minister Xanana Gusmão, pushed the boundaries of their position, inserting themselves into political struggles and domestic politics.

    Of the 12 candidates running for president, only 3 are major contenders. Current president Ramos-Horta remains popular and is expected to do well. However, he does not have the support of a major party, which weakens his chances.

    Francisco Guterresor, or Lu-Olo, is head of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, which led Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence and is the country’s most prominent political party. Guterresor received the largest percentage of votes in the first round of voting in the 2007 elections before being defeated by Ramos-Horta in a runoff.

    José Maria de Vasconcelos, or Tuar Matan Ruak, retired as chief of the armed forces in October 2011 so he could run for president. A former member of Fretilin, he has been criticized by members for splitting the party. He received a significant boost when the National Congress for the Reconstruction in East Timor Party, head of the current ruling coalition, offered its support for him. In 2007, the party strongly backed Ramos-Horta. 

    A lack of reliable polling makes it difficult to predict who will win the elections. A recent rise in clashes between members of martial arts groups, which often function as violent youth gangs in Timor-Leste, has raised concerns about possible mob violence if the election results do not match the expectations of certain groups. Violence in 2006 and after the 2007 elections was partly triggered by constituents believing that their party had fared better than it actually had.

    Some of the biggest challenges facing the elections are the institutional weakness of the election commission and the national police, which remain largely untested in riot and crowd control. Three Molotov cocktails were thrown at government offices in Dili February 21, which prompted the police commander to say his forces would shoot anyone seen trying to impede election activities. The police withdrew this statement after it was widely criticized, but the incident highlights the underlying tensions in Dili.

    So far, the campaign has been largely nonviolent and key candidates and political leaders have pledged to ensure peaceful elections. Whether a democratic transition has been achieved won’t be known until after the new government is formed. Limited economic development leaves the country with a long to-do list, and winning the election will be only the first of many hurdles facing the country’s new leaders.

    Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kathleen Bissonnette is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.