17 March 2012

Elections to Test Timor-Leste’s Stability

March 14, 2012 By Mario F. Costa Pinheiro - With presidential elections set for March 17, followed by parliamentary elections in June, Timor-Leste is now in full political campaign mode. Some prominent figures in the country will compete for the post in Saturday’s presidential election, including incumbent president Jose Ramos Horta; the just-resigned commander of the armed forces, Taur Matan Ruak; Vice Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres; the sitting president of the National Parliament, Fernando Lasama; and Lu Olo, the president of the main opposition party FRETLIN.

In total, there are 13 candidates running, including two women, a sure recipe for a runoff to decide the most suitable candidate.

Although the presidential post in Timor-Leste is largely considered a ceremonial one, regardless of who is vying for it, the next few months leading up to both elections, as well as the aftermath, will be a crucial test for Asia’s newest nation. The world will be watching attentively to see how Timor-Leste manages the process of participatory democracy.

The outcome of these elections will be even more critical this year, as the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) – set up in 2006 to provide policing and security after an outbreak of deadly violence – prepares to withdraw at the end of 2012. However, questions remain as to how Timor-Leste will manage its own affairs without the nods and winks of the protective body, which recently has not been shy to criticize the current government. The departure of the UN mission, after over a decade in the country, will have a lasting effect on Timor’s political landscape. “Greater freedom comes with even greater responsibility,” so they say. Indeed, how Timor takes over its own policing and security will be a test of its strength and character.

Some say the withdrawal of the UN forces will grant Timor-Leste’s police and the army greater freedom and will allow for a security approach more suited to the Timorese cultural context. However, the handling by the Timor police of university student protests over the purchase of 65 new luxury cars for members of parliament has raised doubts over the ability of Timor’s national police to maintain peace and enforce the rule of law in an even-handed manner. Acts of hostility by the police are commonly reported in the handling of minor social unrest. In addition, new data from local NGO Yayasan HAK released in January 2012 show that the national police contribute to many human rights abuses in the country. The most pressing question now is whether the national police (PNTL) and the armed forces (F-FDTL) will be able to provide adequate and appropriate security for the upcoming elections as UN police and forces begin to transition to minor support roles. The police and the armed forces should maximize the presence of the UN forces while they are in the country. Both units need to cooperate with UN forces and the community to establish a coordinating mechanism to minimize potential violence from occurring and to ensure that elections are held peacefully.

Despite this, Police Commissioner Longuinhos Monteiro has tried to dispel doubt over his force’s ability to maintain peace, citing the stable security situation following the attempted assassination of Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, among other leaders, in 2008, which he claims owed much to the unyielding efforts of the PNTL and the F-FDTL. Indeed, this is true to some extent. However, there are other factors that have contributed to the stabile security condition thus far. One could argue that payments made to Internally Displaced People to return to their homes and subsidies for veterans and people over 60 also played a significant stabilizing role following the crisis.

Challenges notwithstanding, many Timorese cannot wait to vote in the elections. The question, however, is whether real change can actually transpire when the players remain the same old mates and foes that have dominated Timorese politics since restoration of its independence in 2002.

The main opposition party, FRETILIN, has not changed its party leadership, with Lu Olo and Marí Alkatiri remaining as president and secretary general of the party, respectively, after a direct vote by party supporters elected both in a no-contest party ballot. On the other hand, the Congresso Nacional da Reconstrucao de Timor (CNRT), one of the main parties in the current coalition government, has done very little to change its party structure. Following the recent party congress, the leadership decided to maintain its course with the same individuals in leadership positions, with current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao still at the helm of the party. A similar situation can be seen in the Democratic Party as well – arguably the third largest party in the country.

Not unlike other countries that have gone through similar independence struggles, it appears as if the country’s old guard is not yet ready to hand over power to the new guard – something which Taur Matan Ruak, the recently resigned commander of the F-FDTL, is seeking to change, citing his own resignation as opening the door for the younger generation to assume greater responsibility.

In this state of affairs, it would be too much to expect for a radically different government to take over in the 2012 election. Even the outcome of the legislative election is for the most part rather predictable. With over 20 parties competing for the 65 seats in parliament, the existence of another coalition government is almost a certainty, with either FRETILIN or CNRT expected to lead the next coalition government.

That being said, one cannot be too sure – or too cynical. If anything, the last election in 2007 is a good indication of what could await Timor-Leste after the parliamentary election. In that instance, FRETILIN, despite having won the majority of seats, had to ultimately be content with being the opposition after initially challenging President Ramos Horta’s controversial decision of granting CNRT the right to form a coalition government at the high court. The question of legitimacy – the right to govern – was at the heart of the issue. FRETILIN claimed that it had more right to form a government, citing the fact that it earned the most votes – despite falling short of a majority needed to form a government.

In any case, Election Day in Timor-Leste is often likened to judgment day where the electorates decide whether to punish or reward a government. This two-sided coin of democracy is ultimately what makes it fascinating. On the one hand, democracy gives you the freedom to make mistakes while also allowing for self-improvement; and on the other hand, election results are often the measure by which a government is vindicated or not.

Whatever the outcomes of this year’s elections, people are primarily hoping that they will be peaceful – and that a new president – capable of representing the Timorese people at the national and international level – is sworn in.

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