20 October 2012

Legitimate Politics and Structural issues in Timor’s Fragility

Palacio do Governo, Dili
ETLJB 20 October 2012 Guest Poster: Guteriano Neves - Introduction: “Legitimate Politics” is the first goal of peace building and state building, agreed upon by the g7+ members in Monrovia. This is referred to later on as the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals, which were adopted at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, in November, 2011, as part of New Deal. Based on these goals also, the performance of so-called “fragile states” is measured against these goals. The basic assumption is that when state institutions do not enjoy legitimacy from their citizens, the perceived level of fragility increases.

If we frame legitimacy in the context of fragility, this implies that fragile states do not have legitimacy or at best only weak legitimacy from their citizens. Indeed, in order to progress beyond fragility, fragile states must strengthen their legitimacy. But the history of the developing world tells us that acquiring legitimacy has proved to be a difficult pursuit. Even countries that have been independent for more than half a century still struggle with political legitimacy. This article discusses some issues related to political legitimacy in Timor-Leste by critically reflecting on our experience since 1999, and the current economic and political development.

Citizens’ Lack of Ownership towards the State

In Timor, a country that just went through foreign occupation and a violent struggle against foreign rule, political participation goes beyond the notion of liberal democracy. During the resistance, people from the entire spectrum of social classes, including the intelligentsia, and multiple generations participated in the struggle to liberate their homeland from foreign occupiers. Many revolutionary organisations existed during the struggle but these groups were merely symbols that facilitated the process. Therefore, reflecting critically on the struggle of the Timorese people and the current state of development, our struggle towards a common goal is embedded in the Timorese consciousness as a nation. This is the factor that unites the Timorese to imagine themselves as one nation, to refer to Anderson’s “Imagined Community.” The positive implication is that people had a sense of ownership and responsibility towards common goals because they felt that these goals belonged to them and what they were doing was a part of achieving these goals.

But after the country finally won its independence the situation changed dramatically. The United Nations led the international community in nation-building in Timor-Leste, unraveling Timorese unity in the process, especially at the grassroots level. Even the small number of elites found it hard to find space for political participation. Many international efforts to “empower” the community resulted in the erosion of existing local authority, which was driven by the presence of a multitude of international advisers.

The situation did not change much after the restoration of independence in 2002. The process then came to be dominated by local elites, most of whom reside in Dili. The failure of political parties to channel the aspiration of their constituents into the development process meant that political parties only had real significance during election cycles and the parties became merely stepping stones for elites to acquire power.

Before the massive flow of oil money began accumulating in the state coffers, many NGOs played the role of facilitating popular political participation on a small scale, allowing the people’s voice to be heard through advocacy efforts. But after the flow of petroleum money began in earnest, and as the state budget increased, and donor's contributions decreased, the influence of NGOs began to wane. On the other hand, the state, dominated by a few elites, grew more powerful. In other words, the increase in oil money empowered the state, and at the same time reduced the public sphere for political participation.

The result for the Timorese people is that they find themselves marginalised because their voices are barely heard and reflected in the development process. Although it is easy to call this situation undemocratic, it is hard to swallow for a society that just underwent a brutal popular struggle. It is like taking away the destiny of the nation from them.  This loss of their voice erodes their sense of being part of a community. After losing their ability to participate, the Timorese people feel that the process no longer belongs to them. This ultimately leads to an erosion of the sense of responsibility of ordinary Timorese citizens toward the social transformation of this new country.

This is the lesson we should learn from our experience of nation-state building over the past ten years. Although we have earned the praise of many international observers, we still have to reflect critically upon our flaws in nation-building.  There are clear lessons to be learned from our own history.

Invisibility of the State

The modern state we intended to build is not an institution embedded in our history, nor in the history of other third world societies. It is a relatively new institution that comes to us through Western colonialism. Given its novelty in Timor, it is hard for this new institution to claim legitimacy over citizens who previously lived in small communities, and who acted according to community-agreed upon norms and regulations.

Meanwhile, as a post-colonial and post-conflict society, Timor is also facing multi-dimensional problems. Some of these are high rates of illiteracy and malnutrition, poor infrastructure, subsistence agriculture, land-ownership, law enforcement, a culture of “Big Brother,” and many others. In this circumstance, rather than monopoly over coercive power, as  the Weberian notion of state suggests, the capacity of the state to solve problems inherited from colonialism is what determines political legitimacy. Thus, the expectation from the people toward the state is very high. The state is expected to provide social services such as education, health, water, and sanitation, to develop the economy, to build infrastructure, to protect citizens’ rights. And the list goes on and on.

It is common in the history of developing countries after independence that he invisible hand of state is everywhere and the state played a part in every aspect of the society. That was how the state made itself visible to its citizens and fortified its existence.

In Timor-Leste, after independence, we Timorese expected a similar significant role of the state. We wanted the state to provide social services, health services, water and sanitation, enforce the rule of law, to  protect the basic rights of its citizens, public works, and so on.

But these expectations have not been met, and of course, it will not take a short time to fulfill them. State visibility has remained very low. Most of state apparatus is located in Dili. Police, judges, prosecutors and civil servants are all located in Dili. This is totally disproportionate because only about around 21% of Timorese live in Dili, but most of public servants are centralised in Dili.

Consequently, in the districts, especially in the villages and remote areas, the state remains almost invisible to citizens. Although health and education are frequently criticised, in rural areas we see the state only when our children go to school or when people receive services at community health centers. How can one honestly speak of “state legitimacy” to these rural citizens?

Exclusive Economic Growth

What is important for Timor-Leste is to have an economy where everyone can contribute to growth, everyone is part of it, and everyone can benefit from it.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case since independence. Timor’s economy has been dominated by an influx of international capital that came through foreign aid and by selling the country’s natural resources. Through this, the state finances all the large infrastructure projects, pays more than 40,000 civil servants, and keeps the state machine functioning.

On the other hand, the agricultural sector - the source of income for 75% of Timorese - continued to decline 0.8% every year between 2002 and 2010. At the same time, the public sector, which employs more than 40,000 people, increased 1% every year. Services and industry are still stagnant. (Source:  Ministry of Finance statistics.)

This tells a lot about the economic structure of Timorese society. First, it implies that 75% of Timorese who depend on the agricultural sector are getting poorer and more vulnerable to poverty, whereas those involved in the public sector are doing better. Second, it implies that 75% of Timorese are less participative and less productive in contributing to national economic growth. Consequently, people began to shift away from the agricultural sector and seek jobs in other sectors which also proves difficult.

In a country where the state does not heavily depend on exporting its natural resources, the burden of the state to provide good services is very high, because the state relies on citizens’ contribution in various forms. But in a country like Timor-Leste, where the state’s domestically generated revenues are only about 8% of state annual budget, the incentive for the state to provide basic services is almost non-existent. In the end, our economy is not a participatory and inclusive economy, generated by Timorese. Rather, it is driven by an influx of foreign capital from petroleum revenues. Politically, since the state does not depend on Timorese citizens to finance and maintain its apparatus, it does not feel that it has to be accountable to them. It does not need to tax its citizens, not even the rich, because the state receives a lot of money from petroleum revenues. Similarly, Timorese people do not view the State’s money as belonging to the citizens of the country.

This mutual lack of financial dependence might appear simple but it has highly detrimental effect.  It erodes the work ethic in the public sector because individuals lack a sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens even though they get paid by the state. It erodes the sense of belonging and responsibility of every citizen to contribute. And at the end of the day, it changes the nature of the social contract upon which the modern state is based.


When we talk about political legitimacy, our own experiences provide us with many lessons. Our struggle for independence was popular, participative, and inclusive. Everyone therefore felt that they played a role and were part of a process. However, since 1999, when we reflect critically upon how our nation-state has been built, we find that lack of Timorese ownership and the state’s lack of a visible presence outside of Dili, as well as the Timorese economic structure are very exclusive. By highlighting these issues, we realise that our structural issues undermine the political legitimacy of the state. Lastly, in order to acquire political legitimacy, all of us have to work to transform these problems.

The author is a researcher at Timor-Leste’s Presidential Research Center. Originally published on Karau Dikur Republished on East Timor Law and Justice Buletin with permission. Edited by Warren L. Wright BA LLB. Photo added by ETLJB.

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