Timor–Leste consolidates its young democracy

Timor–Leste consolidates its young democracy

The people of one of the world’s youngest democracies are embracing an open, public and popular electoral process, writes Damien Kingsbury

In a colourful and noisy event, unblemished so far by the violence that marred the first few years of independence, Timor–Leste prepares for its fourth parliamentary elections this Saturday. By conventional criteria, it has passed the test of consolidating its young democracy.

This year, the number of parties contesting the elections is 21, as in 2012. However, the main parties—perhaps four or five—are likely to take the lion’s share of the vote.

Parties that do not receive four per cent of the total vote in the single constituency will have their vote treated, in effect, as not counted. It means the threshold for parties over four per cent to get members in parliament is functionally lowered.

Coalition of national unity

It will be difficult for any single party to achieve an absolute majority of 33 seats in the 65-seat parliament. So, the next government is likely to be a coalition of two or more parties.

Since 2015, Timor–Leste has operated under a ‘government of national unity’, in which the major parties Fretilin and CRT have shared power. This arrangement initially included the smaller Democratic Party, which was later dumped from the governing bloc.

The coalition has provided Timor–Leste with stability. This has been especially important as the young country continues to heal the wounds of a violent split in 2006–7 that led to foreign intervention.

However, with the two largest parties dominating government, the country has had little by way of an opposition to hold the government to account, not least for the growth in alleged corruption.

The task of ‘opposition’ effectively fell to the past president, Taur Matan Ruak, who did not re-contest the largely ceremonial presidency in order to contest the parliamentary elections with his new People’s Liberation Party. In the March presidential elections, PLP and PD joined forces to support a joint presidential candidate, but were soundly beaten in the first round by the CNRT-supported Fretilin candidate Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres.

A multiplicity of parties in Timor–Leste reflects fewer ideological distinctions, particularly since the formation of government of national unity. Though there is one small, avowedly socialist party whose leader is regularly included in the multi-party cabinet.

Beyond that, the real issues revolve around the management of the country’s oil-based sovereign wealth (‘petroleum’) fund. This fund underwrites both the government budget and, by extension, most of the rest of the economy.

Based on recent budgets and rates of government spending—albeit on much needed infrastructure—Timor–Leste will be broke before the end of the 2020s

However, government spending since 2008 has exceeded interest-only income from the petroleum fund. Income into the petroleum fund has been in decline for several years and the oil fields are beginning to dry up.

Based on recent budgets and rates of government spending—albeit on much needed infrastructure—Timor–Leste will be broke before the end of the 2020s.

There is common agreement across the parties that this issue will be largely redressed by accessing the wealth locked up in the Greater Sunrise liquid natural gas field. Most of this LNG field lies in Australian waters under the terms of the Timor Sea Agreement foisted on the struggling new democracy in 2002.

Timor–Leste is arguing for a permanent equilateral boundary to be agreed to between it and Australia, rather than the current income-sharing arrangement under a ‘Joint Petroleum Development Area’.

The matter is under international arbitration, but progressing slowly.

Even if the country was to gain control of the Greater Sunrise field, Timor–Leste’s medium-to-longer term concern is that interest in developing it has waned with the drop in the price of LNG. This has been further complicated by its government’s insistence that the LNG be processed in Timor–Leste.

This means piping the LNG across a deepwater trench to a refining facility that does not yet exist. But this goes to longer-term economic planning which in turn reflects government and, to a lesser extent, party policy. These are matters for the government following these elections.

Voting in election for president, Timor-Leste, March 2017 Photo: José Fernando Real Source: Wikimedia Commons
Democratic success story

For the moment, however, the country is in the thrall of the electoral process. The political speeches reflect sometimes soaring rhetoric if less hard substance.

If the future will not quite take care of itself, now is a time for celebrating the electoral contest. A social occasion in which people come together around their local polling station to catch up on local stories, to share food and drinks, and perhaps watch or gamble on a cock fight. Oh, and to vote.

As the tally gets underway, the local vote count is open and public. Voters watch and cheer for each of their candidate’s votes, catcall votes for others and generally treat the event like a sporting contest.

The people of Timor–Leste have embraced their elections, as shown by their relatively high voluntary voter turn–out, and the electoral process works well. For now, at least, Timor–Leste is one of the world’s developing country democratic success stories.

Featured image: School children in Ossu, Timor-Leste, in 2015. Photo: Isabel Nolasco Source: Wikimedia Commons

Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University and Coordinator of the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission.

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