More inclusive analysis needed of presidential elections in Timor-Leste

By Quintiliano Mok, Sara Niner and Lisa Palmer

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the modern nation of the Republica Democratica de Timor Leste the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, declared in 2002.

This followed two years of United Nations administration, 24 years of Indonesian military occupation (1975-1999) and nearly 400 years of colonial association with Portugal. In March 2022, the people of Timor-Leste will head to the polls to elect their seventh president.

The machinations and intrigue of oscillating relationships between the well-known male historical leaders of Timor’s armed resistance and diplomatic front (and their various political parties), have long dominated Timor-Leste national politics.

They have also tended to dominate national and international political analysis of the young nation’s electoral cycle. Here we argue that this preoccupation with the strong men of Timor overlooks other stories of power, identity and the emergence of previously marginalised voices.

Gender, class and culture in Timor-Leste

The dynamics of national politics in Timor-Leste may also be read through changing relations of gender, class and culture. They are also reflected by the diversity of the sixteen presidential contenders in 2022, as well as the wider public dialogue about the forthcoming election.

While it faces an array of post-conflict challenges, including enabling a more diverse and inclusive representation in national political decision-making, Timor-Leste is considered a resilient democracy.

New social dynamics including the emergence of a middle-class and progressive identity politics have in turn created spaces for new forms of political leadership and agency. A rural marginalised voice is also gaining political traction and attention.

For the past two decades, the highest social status in Timor’s post-conflict society has been awarded to those who served in the armed resistance to Indonesian occupation.  Yet as one young male Timorese politician recently remarked, the Timorese national parliament has opened itself up to a wider array of political representation.

Intersecting with customary rank and veteran status are modernising values of gender and class diversity and increasingly a recognition that indigenous cultures and languages are a critical part of the national political conversation.

Three women stand in a field on a farm in Timor-Leste

A self-help farming group in Tapomemo village, Timor-Leste. Pic credit: UN Women/Betsy Davis-Cosme via Flickr

Timor's women presidential candidates

Four of the sixteen candidates for President in 2022 are women. A recent online debate titled ‘Women are Ready to Lead’ featured two of the female candidates responding to questions around their plans for national security and military funding.

One candidate, Milena Pires, a former UN representative, spoke of her desire for Timor to train and contribute peacekeepers to post-conflict situations around the world. The other candidate, Angela Freitas, the leader of a Timorese workers’ party, spoke of the urgent need to address the fact that nearly one third of the population are members of illegal martial arts groups.

Both candidates made strong pronouncements on the need to transform Timor by creating a stronger platform for youth via education and employment.  Viewers at home may have been surprised by the considered and nuanced ways in which this security debate, often an exclusively male domain inside Timor-Leste, was being addressed in public by these two women.

Four women appear on a presidential election debate

Notably absent from this televised debate were the other two female candidates. One is Isabel da Costa Ferreira, the current Prime Minister’s wife, a human right’s lawyer known for her more conservative, elite establishment views is on the record as questioning the utility of parliamentary quotas for female representation (set at 30% with mixed but generally positive results for women’s national political participation).

The other, Armanda Berta dos Santos, is an enigmatic candidate who leads Khunto, one of the newer parties on the national political scene and whose individual profile has grown considerably in recent years. Currently the deputy Prime Minister in a political marriage of convenience dos Santos’ presence and influence in parliament is held up by some Timorese as a testament to the greater diversity of gender, class and indeed ‘traditional’ Timorese culture allowed voice in the parliamentary arena.

Hailing from a poor rural background her run for president in 2022 has seen a new rural class of vocal women rallying around her and the party. Yet this means that her political persona is marked by a potential intersecting disadvantage: her gender, her socio-economic status and rural background mark her out as an outsider from the usual Dili political and civil society elite.

This was amply demonstrated in a recent incident where dos Santos was mocked and denigrated on social media for objecting to demands that the national presidential debate be carried out in Portuguese, one of the two official languages. While Timorese make much of the fact that their President needs to be able to communicate internationally at the highest levels of state, a lingering colonially influenced disdain for the indigenous and the rural seems implicit in this public response.

Nonetheless, the candidate was quick to point out that not only she herself, but the majority of the Timorese population would not be able to carry out or even understand a debate in Portuguese. She later raised the stakes, suggesting that if Portuguese be prescribed then so too should she be allowed to debate in her own indigenous or mother tongue language (there are close to twenty such languages across the country).

Growing diversity in political processes

Eight younger male candidates who are putting themselves forward for the 2022 election are likewise campaigning on a number of progressive fronts.  Five are former youth and student resistance leaders (National Resistance of East Timorese Students or RENETIL, and others). Of these five, one is the head of the Timor-Leste Press Council, running on a platform championing a free and professionally constituted press.

Another is a social scientist, and head of the peace studies centre at the national university, who has more recently established an environmental camp in the rural hinterland to encourage students to document and engage with indigenous Timorese environmental knowledge.

Timor’s political institutions can be a hostile place for women and other marginalised groups. Significant differences in power and status between men and women is apparent but so are other intersecting social categories for establishing authority and influence, including family background, place of residence, age, class and veteran status.

More diverse participation in political decision-making processes (and analysis thereof) enables the inclusion of the concerns and priorities of marginal groups in policymaking and facilitates progress towards the creation of more equitable, just and sustainable societies.

Progress is apparent in the high representation of women, the newer younger faces of men and those from lower, often rural, socio-economic groups in newer political parties and in the presidential candidate list.

Quintiliano Mok is a former RENETIL representative of the Asia-Pacific region; Dr Sara Niner is a Lecturer and interdisciplinary researcher in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University; Dr Lisa Palmer is an Associate Professor in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Banner image: Fidelia Soares and her 12 year old daughter Domingas are involved in CARE's Young Women Young Nation education project in Liquica, Timor-Leste. The project encourages parents to send their girls to school, and supports girls to stay there. Source: Flickr/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


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