11 July 2009

The Seed of “Patronage Politics” in Timor Leste

Renova Timor 9 July 2009 By: Acacio Angel - The latest corruption issues involving government officials in Timor Leste have been in the headline news for the past weeks. This time, the Australian giant television network, ABC News reported a high level corruption involving Timor Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. The News reported that the Premier signed a US$ 3.5 million project to a food company in which his daughter Zenilda holds a 20% of the share. There have been mix reactions from individuals and groups with regards to the allegation.

The opposition party in the parliament has called the premier to resign while his party and several business groups have raised their voices in supporting him. His government spokesperson, for instance, has called the News' report as “ inaccurate” while the business groups see it as direct foreign intervention on the country’s internal affairs. Either way, the supports are not free from suspicion especially those that were from the business groups.

It was surprising to hear that a group of businessmen raised their voice supporting an alleged corrupt government leader, an act which I would see it as a bizarre one in world politician – businessmen relationships. There are several points that can be subjects to scrutiny namely the motivations of the supports, the role of laws and ultimately the rights of the alleged individual itself. In short, why should the business groups’ support be bizarre here?

This is to say that, in most cases, it is the government that supports businesses, through bailouts, in times of recession. The sole purpose in doing so is to put the businesses back on track, for the failure of doing so will threaten the life of the ruling government and affect the country's internal security. Although in the current Global Politics setting, Multinational Corporations (MNC) like TOYOTA, LENOVO, etc., can have a direct deter governments' activities, the reverse of protectionism has rarely been done.

Why? Businesses are but after profit making and pursuing incentives. So much so that “you can hardly see business men in electoral vote, for doing so would mean wasting time which is equal to losing money (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in “Freakonomics”)”.

The way I see it, the business groups' support is, first of all, an expression of the tension with the phenomena of globalization. As a Less Developed Country, Timor Leste is facing globalization challenge just like any other LDCs in the world. The common tension is whether to close the country in order to protect local ways of governing or to open it up and learn from other countries that are moving on similar direction to democracy and good governance.

There are always advantages as well as disadvantages of riding the globalization. But, neglecting foreign influence, as business groups' statements go, would mean to start the process of democracy and transparency all over again. In the short term, we could see the statement seems to boost patriotism. But, it is a blind one because it does not suggest any alternatives. In the long run, it would cost us longer time to catch up with the neighboring countries, wouldn't it?

Secondly, it is an obvious sign of struggle the local business groups have with its counterpart. Previously, both Horta and Xanana were unhappy with local business groups' protests on the favoritism the leaders have towards foreign investors. The intention of the government, by giving them free tax, was to attract more foreign investors to put their money in Timor Leste. But to the local businesses, being laden with heavy taxes, the challenge to upgrade their entrepreneurships was unfair. The intension of the support then can be seen as a remedy to the distrusts.

Yet, to close the country to external influences is to contradict the government’s efforts of “incorporation” to all sorts of world organizations and alliances since it gained its independence. In fact, Timor Leste is benefiting a lot from being in associations with foreign organizations. But, the country has to fulfill certain mechanism or criteria like democracy, transparency and accountability.

It is the same criterion foreign investors look into when they asses a country to invest in. One of the mechanisms for democratization is to let both media and law do its job. After all, everybody is free man until one is proven guilty by the court. For it is possible that politicians make decisions based mostly on the advantages without referring to the precedents. And that is why the deputy Prime Minister Mario Carascalao had called it as a possible “honest mistake”.

The third point and the most lethal to our democratic life is the “Patronage Politics”. It is almost true that any simple practices, like the “honest mistake” as well as honest support of the business groups, can become a “culture” over time if it is practiced repeatedly. The patrão - cliente politics is commonly practiced in countries that gained independence from western colonialism. In this political practice, certain groups of people purposely support individual leader in order for them to make more profit.

The leader would normally grant them all security as well as other assistances in order for them to gain more profit. On the contrary, the leader will be guaranteed with their votes. Democracy then becomes ceremonial because the posts are already taken. Once this symbiotic relationship of patrão -cliente takes root, it takes generational efforts to remove it, often through revolutions (blood shed), and often times both will collapse at once. The patrão – cliente politics is obviously knocking on Xanana’s door. Hopefully he does not hear it.

In sum, to be clear from present danger, Timor Leste should be conscious of the rule of law it commits. This is to say that Xanana should be left alone to respond by himself to the media with regards to the allegation. He should also cooperate with the court, as a citizen by example, if ever some groups push further the case. For most governments, as the executive branch, decisions are made based on legal procedures and laws.

So, following this logic, if the allegation of ABC news will eventually be pursued to the court and proven, let the law deals with it. If in the end the law does not seem to make sense, that would be the time to call democracy in. On top of all, the relationship of business – government should be in a certain cooperation and yet independent from each other. The benefit of this is that, if the market falls, just like what the world is experiencing now, there will be a government that can rescue it. Otherwise, when a government falls, the economic activities will be stagnant and the country will be faced with all sorts of social issues.

Should TL ever allows patrão – clinte politics, democracy would have to pay the price.


Anonymous said...

I see it coming. As a new country you can expect such phenomena but hopefully people would soon be aware of it. Many people have died for Timor and they definnitely did not intend this corrupt politics to happend in Timor. The genaration down the line do not want to read such practices in history books either. Good luck to you TImor.


Anonymous said...

Damn...I think the practice is realy bad...you businesses... hands off....wait until your businesses are down, gov.will give you a buck.