Resolving Timor-Leste's political crisis

By Dr Avery Poole. Assistant Director, Melbourne School of Government

The people of Timor-Leste are heading to the polls this week for the second time in ten months.

On 12 May 2018, a fresh round of parliamentary elections will attempt to overcome the legislative impasse in the current minority government.

The new government promised more stability and democratic progress. But this has been cast in doubt by fractious relations among the major parties, ultimately resulting in the government being unable to pass its mandate and the dissolution of parliament.

In the process, there is a risk that important issues such as addressing poverty and unemployment (particularly among young people), and improving basic services such as water supplies, are relegated to the background.

Rural scene, Alieu, Timor Leste

Rural scene, Alieu, Timor Leste. Photo: Dr Kate Neely, Melbourne School of Government

Political impasse

Last July’s parliamentary elections were a tight contest between Timor-Leste’s two biggest parties. The leftist Fretilin, (with which President Francisco Guterres is aligned) won 23 seats, and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) (which is led by former Independence leader and the nation’s first Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão), won 22 seats.

Fretilin ultimately formed a coalition with the Democratic Party, and their minority government controls 30 of the 65 seats in parliament.

However, the coalition’s attempts to govern were thwarted by the opposition, the most prominent being the Aliança Mudança ba Progresso (Change for Progress Alliance, or AMP), which comprises the CNRT, the Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and the youth-focused KHUNTO.

The AMP effectively created a new majority alliance which rejected the government’s plans to secure confidence and supply, meaning they could not govern effectively. President Guterres ultimately agreed in January to the dissolution of parliament and the calling of new elections.

A way forward?

Timor-Leste remains relatively stable, having recovered considerably from the political violence associated with past elections (particularly the parliamentary elections of June 2007, where Fretilin and CNRT supporters clashed). But the major parties’ failure in 2017 to run a functioning parliament has undermined this stability.

Resolving the situation is important not just for the Timorese people, but for the region more broadly. Despite its past, Timor-Leste has become something of a beacon of hope for democratic progress in Southeast Asia, which is increasingly marked by democratic regression or ‘backsliding’.

While Timor-Leste is not a consolidated democracy, it scored the highest of its Southeast Asian neighbours in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in 2017. Moreover, while Timor-Leste’s score on this index has remained fairly steady in the last decade, several other Southeast Asian states (such as Indonesia and Thailand) have been declining.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, which measures political rights and civil liberties, categorised Timor-Leste as ‘Free’ in 2017 – the only Southeast Asian state to achieve this.

But these elections are likely to be more contentious than last year’s. As was the case in the 2017 elections, domestic and international election observers will be present to, ideally, vouch for the credibility and transparency of the election processes and result.

Timorese man. Photo: Dr Kate Neely, Melbourne School of Government

Pressing issues

In the fray of coalition negotiations, there is a tendency for discussions about the challenges faced by the Timorese people to be neglected.

Civil society groups such as Fundasaun Mahein and La’o Hamutuk are urging political candidates to focus on policy issues, rather than personalities and party politics.

Deficits in basic needs, employment and opportunities persist. In 2014 the World Bank estimated about 41.8 per cent of the population was in poverty, and life expectancy in 2016 was just 68.88 years.

Unemployment is difficult to measure in a meaningful way, particularly given the prevalence of people relying on subsistence farming and working outside the monetised economy, but is generally understood to be high.

These issues are particularly pertinent when it comes to young people.

More than 60 per cent of the Timorese population is under 25 years old, and the average age is around 18 years old.Many young people feel disenfranchised, and political parties are not necessarily addressing the challenges they face.

While the youth-focused KHUNTO gained seats for the first time in parliament in 2017 and PLP ran on a campaign focused on development and basic needs in 2017, both have now joined the AMP coalition with the CNRT, which is more focused on large-scale projects.

The recent agreement on the Timor Sea oil and gas reserves treaty with Australia has the potential to provide jobs for young Timorese people, but this depends in large part on whether Timor-Leste is able to develop the processing facilities in Dili rather than in Darwin. This highly contentious issue remains unresolved.

It will be fascinating to see whether the elections on 12 May can facilitate the formation of a stable government which can facilitate economic opportunities and long-term development for the Timorese people.

Banner image: Dr Kate Neely, Melbourne School of Government

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foreign-policy; election Foreign Policy; Election