05 February 2013

Emerging Political Apathy in Post-War East Timor

Paddy Tobias, PhD candidate, Peace Studies, University of New England and Adrian Walsh, Associate Professor, Philosophy, University of New England

Much attention on East Timor’s elections in 2012 was focused on the maintenance of peace and security. In the lead-up to the elections, one frequently heard calls from the Catholic Church, non-government organisations as well as national and international leaders for peace, calm and unity. The Church, for example, organised in February a five-kilometre peace rally of 5,000 people through Dili, which reportedly(i)  included priests, nuns, seminarians, lay people, government officials and foreign ambassadors, while a few days later UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, declared(ii) that credible, transparent and peaceful elections would be “critical to deepening peace and progress in Timor Leste”. 

Yet, while concern for electoral peace was entirely reasonable – especially given the unrest and intimidation that characterised the 2007 elections – limited attention was, and continues to be, devoted to the importance, in democracies, of elections and voting. East Timor’s Constitution(iii) recognises voting as a “civic duty” and does not legally require citizens to vote. Yet, voting is vital for any nation consolidating and maintaining a representative, popular democracy. One UN website(iv)  reads: “the will of the people is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states”. The potential of voter abstention in elections thus may be a problem for East Timor’s political development.

Figure 1: Election day, people queuing to vote in Suco Liurai in the Aileu district (Photo: Paddy Tobias, 7th July 2012)
Since the 1999 referendum, voter participation has fallen in both the parliamentary and presidential polls. When we compare the turnout for the 2001 parliamentary election(v) to last year’s(vi), voter engagement proportional to the registered voter population has shrunk by almost 20 percent. An increase in registered voters of around 220,000 over the past 11 years has translated into just 100,000 new votes, which would seem to indicate that more than half of all new eligible voters (those celebrating their 17th birthday) are choosing not to engage in the political process. In the 2012 parliamentary election alone, 162,832 registered voters did not participate.

Figure 2: Voter participation in consecutive elections since 200(vii)
One possible explanation for this drop relates to the euphoria surrounding the first election in 2001 when the first Constituent Assembly was elected. We might think that the post-war enthusiasm of the period extraordinarily inflated the average level of interest in politics and therefore 2001 is not a reliable benchmark. This is a reasonable hypothesis but we are not convinced that this fully explains why voter turnout has fallen so dramatically in just eleven years.

One alternative explanation for this remarkable 20 percent drop is the electorate’s growing disenchantment with domestic politics. We have been in East Timor a couple of times during 2012, including the campaign period of the parliamentary election (5 June – 4 July 2012), for a research project. We are investigating, amongst other things, the social impacts of a multi-party democracy in a post-war nation. Based on anecdotal information collected during these trips, we noticed a definite sense of voter frustration with the self-interest and personality-driven politics that dominate the Timorese political scene. “All the leaders are the same. In front of many people they always talk a lot, but do nothing. All the political leaders are the same”, one 25 year old explained. A senior public servant in one of East Timor’s district administrations complained, “They promise everything - it is the same everywhere - but they never deliver on their promises. So that is why I still worry about the political campaign because I never 100 percent believe them… the community is the victim.”

In the eyes of many people to whom we spoke, the opportunistic and populist tactics used by some politicians to gain political advantage have tarnished the image of Timorese politics generally. One well-educated leader of a youth organisation responded as follows when questioned whether politics was a profession of interest, “In Timor-Leste, right now we don’t have maturity of politics… Maybe in 10 or 20 years and I’ll get involved in politics, but not now.” To this young man, the State’s slow development in 10 years of sovereignty is a direct result of the self-interest and a lack of policy foresight in Dili.

Figure 3: Ramos Horta addresses the crowd at a campaign rally for Democratic Party (PD) in Aileu (Photo: Paddy Tobias, 2nd July 2012).
The 2012 campaign periods offer a further example of individualistic self-aggrandisement taking precedence over genuine policy platforms. With the exception of a few minor parties, there was a real dearth of authentic policy proposals. The public dispute in June of that year between PM Xanana Gusmão and former-President Jose Ramos Horta provides a case in point. On 14 June, the local Diario Nacional reported(viii)  Ramos Horta’s declaration that CNRT was corrupt and not fit to govern. Ramos Horta was allegedly embittered because Gusmão did not endorse him for presidency earlier in the year; instead CNRT supported Taur Matan Ruak. The following day, in response to Ramos Horta’s remarks, CNRT’s Aderito Hugo da Costa claimed that Ramos Horta was thenceforth not entitled to his 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.(ix) This was then followed a week later by a formal request from Gusmão to investigate Ramos Horta’s spending habits during his time as president.(x)

Figure 4: Liurai lining the road to welcome the CNRT party at a campaign rally in Dili (Photo: Paddy Tobias, 9th June 2012).
Political in-fighting such as this has been a continual problem in elections since the heady days of 2001. Political capital has effectively been sought, not based on rigorously thought through policy proposals but through emotionally-charged, populist campaign tactics. “The campaigners come from Dili; they have enough beer with them, they have enough money, they come for just a couple of days, gather the people, eat something with them… All night they have no rest, and in the morning they [the children] can not go to the school.” Typically such campaigns have centred on, amongst other things, invoking ‘the Resistance’ history and the overthrow of the Indonesians; exploiting religious affiliations; and associating one’s party with traditional culture by the parading of local kings (liurai) at political rallies. There is no doubt that these have been effective ways of engaging great portions of the Timorese population. For instance, CNRT’s campaign, arguably the most sophisticated of the 2012 parliamentary election, featured all three and they subsequently blitzed(xi) all other contending parties in terms of the election result. But there is a growing sense that this might be waning.
Figure 5: The 2012 election billboard for CNRT and Xanana Gusmão in Dili, evoking images of Gusmão's Resistance history with the military uniform. Yellow text: "Together with CNRT, we liberated the homeland. Today we together liberate the people." (Photo: Paddy Tobias, June 2012)
Many we spoke to during the 2012 parliamentary election campaign claimed that the progress of East Timor is enjoyed only by a select few, usually by those with familial ties to the government and its ministries.(xii) “In one political party, you can see that the father is president, the son is treasurer, and the daughter is secretary. This means that when they lead government, they have corruption.” Perceptions of nepotism and corruption, regardless of their veracity, are negatively affecting the image of politics in East Timor. An indication of this was in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index(xiii) which ranked East Timor 113th of 176 countries for its perceived levels of public-sector corruption. One frequently hears in the local news allegations of politicians unlawfully raising political donations(xiv), of government ministries misusing public funds , or of cronyism, such as the newly awarded contract for the Comoro Bridge(xvi).

Such cases, and many others, have gone some way towards undermining the electorate’s confidence in their political leaders. The Anti-Corruption Commission (CAC) was mandated in 2009 to “safeguard the integrity” of public institutions.(xvii)  However, its effective operation in drawing attention to these issues has, to some extent, had the unintended consequence of hardening public sentiment towards the political system. Allegations of the misuse of public power and monies have affected the reputations not only of these seemingly corrupt officials, but of all political actors and of the democratic political system as a whole.

It seems plausible that one consequence of this general frustration with populist politics, on the one hand, and perceived government corruption, on the other, has lead to an increase in electoral abstention. Many people we spoke to claimed that they were unwilling to vote in the parliamentary election because “no political leader or party is trustworthy; they are all the same”. Asked if he would vote in last year’s July elections, a 24 year old responded, “why should I participate in the elections if most of the political leaders are corrupt? What would you think if someone whom you trusted was involved in corruption?”

Such sentiment suggests there is a deep sense of betrayal and disaffection amongst the electorate. After 24 years (1975-1999) of fighting alongside those who are now in power, such perceptions of political self-interest, opportunism and corruption are causing many Timorese to become disillusioned with the State’s political leadership.

The electoral disengagement comes at a time when East Timor needs most, if not all, of its people to be involved in the political process. After 10 years of State sovereignty, basic public services still remain poor. Unsurprisingly, the community is tiring of the slow progress in State-building and of continued financial and social insecurities.

The nation of East Timor has much to celebrate last year – a decade of statehood in May; three peaceful elections (including the run-off presidential); and the completion of the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT) last December. However, if the country is to continue towards genuine sovereignty, then the State must maintain public confidence in its political institutions and leaders. Otherwise the concerning trend of abstention in elections may well undermine progress towards political maturity and democratic Statehood.
i. Seren, FP, ‘March held for peaceful election’, UCANews.com, 23 February 2012,
ii.  ‘Ban calls for peaceful elections in Timor-Leste’, United Nations Radio, 29 February 2012,
iii. Constitution, RDTL,
iv. ‘Democracy and the United Nations’, United Nations Global Issues,
v. ‘Timor Leste: Parliamentary Chamber: Constitutional Assembly’, Inter-Parliamentary Union,
vi. http://www.stae.tl/elections/2012/rezultado/parlamentar/
vii. This graph was compiled by Paddy Tobias using information from sources including Inter-Parliamentary Union (www.ipu.org), STAE (www.stae.tl) and the National Election Commission (CNE).
viii.  ‘Do not let this country be led by CNRT, says Horta’, Diario Nacional, 14 June 2012.
ix.  ‘Horta not national symbol anymore: CNRT’, Independente, 15 June 2012.
x. ‘Gusmão calls on IG to investigate Horta’, Independente, 20 June 2012.
xi. ‘Provisional Results of the Parliamentary Election http://www.stae.tl/elections/2012/rezultado/parlamentar/
xii.  ‘East Timorese Fifth Government: An Oligarchy’, Temporal Semanal, 6 August 2012,

xiii.  Transparency International,
xiv.  ‘Corruption Claims Sours Timor Party’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 2012
xv.  Jornal Independente, ‘Lobato ‘Ready to Explain Truth’ as Corruption Trial Begins’, East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin, 26 April 2012,
xvi.  ‘GOPAC Calls on Investigation into Road’, Renova Timor, 24 June 2012,
xvii.  UNMIT,

Written in November 2012. Edited by Warren L. Wright BA LLB

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another factor is that the 2012 elections were the first in which voters had to return to the place where they were registered to vote. In previous elections, registered voters could vote at any polling center anywhere in Timor-Leste.