Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Briefing 134 / Asia

Timor-Leste’s Elections: Leaving Behind a Violent Past?

Timor-Leste’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be an important step in consolidating the relative stability the country has enjoyed since recovering from the 2006 crisis, but a number of security risks deserve continued attention.

I. Overview

Timor-Leste’s 2012 general elections will provide an important test of the country’s resilience as it celebrates ten years of independence. The governing coalition has undertaken few of the long-term reforms seen as necessary after the 2006 crisis but increased wealth has given many a growing stake in stability. The outcome of polls remains difficult to predict given the breadth of the field in each poll and the weakness of issue-based politics. Successful elections will be important not just toward securing the long-awaited withdrawal of the country’s UN peacekeeping mission but also may give its leaders the confidence to confront its many challenges.

The country is markedly more peaceful than when general elections were last conducted in 2007, but many of the root causes of fragility persist. Relations among the small circle of political leaders are far friendlier, but anger over the past, particularly with regard to the 2006 crisis, remains deeply entrenched. There is a growing number of unemployed youth, particularly in Dili, and gang and martial arts group violence are recurrent problems. No one is sure how closely these issues will feed into political rivalry, but any deliberate manipulation of these frustrations has the potential to be incendiary.

The field will be broad in both polls but once again the real contest is between a handful of familiar players. After a first round of presidential polls on 17 March, two of the following will likely proceed to a second round in April: the incumbent José Ramos-Horta, current parliamentary speaker Fernando “Lasama” de Araújo, his predecessor Fran­ci­sco Guterres “Lu Olo”, or the former armed forces chief, Taur Matan Ruak. Twenty-four parties are poised to compete in parliamentary polls in late June, but only two look capable of winning a majority: Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor-Leste (CNRT) and the party that headed the country’s first government, the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin). A more likely outcome is a coalition government formed by one of these two with a handful of the 22 smaller parties competing. The breadth of this competition, which includes several new parties, makes predicting the parliamentary results difficult.

Political tensions have largely been tempered in the lead up to polls and the security situation remains stable despite a small uptick in violent crime. As campaign season approaches and the political temperature rises, law enforcement capacity remains weak and this means the sources of potential security risks are many. The UN police and the small International Stabilisation Force (ISF) can help buttress crowd control and riot response, but the focus should be on other measures. Civil society groups have a role to play in helping educate voters and monitoring adherence to codes of conduct, as well as shining light on any proxy role in election-related intimidation or violence that martial arts groups could play. Public relations should be a key part of the planned joint operations centre for election security response: rumours have stoked violence and a quick-footed response by police in combating misinformation could help keep the peace. The greatest risk is the near-complete impunity for political violence: the candidates should make it clear now that such crimes will no longer be forgiven.

The UN also has a role to play. National authorities will take responsibility for administering the country’s second major polls since independence, but the UN mission should be ready to take both private and public steps in response to any serious violations of electoral regulations. One product of the UN’s thirteen-year presence in Timor is a strong sense of its mission as a guarantor of free and fair polls even if it plays only a supporting role.

Electoral violence in Timor-Leste’s short history is a symptom of embittered political rivalries that extend back into the resistance struggle and the high stakes of political competition. Relations between the small political elite will heal at their own pace, but several steps could be taken in the medium term to lower existing pressures. These include staggering the calendar for presidential and parliamentary polls in different years and encouraging the development of reliable opinion polling or parallel vote tabulation. A staggered calendar could lower tensions around both elections. Polling or quick counts could provide a reality check to the partisan fervour that characterises campaigning and remove some of the pressure on the announcement of results, historically a trigger of violence.

While polls unmarred by serious violence are a prerequisite for the UN’s departure, robust but peaceful political competition is important to the country’s long-term stability. This election has raised understandable nervousness among many Timorese of the prospects of a return to violence. Many difficult reforms since 2006 have been deferred in the fear that they might jeopardise the consolidation of stability. Successful polls should give the new government the confidence to put more hard work towards developing consensus and enacting reforms to strengthen the rule of law.

Dili/Jakarta/Brussels, 21 February 2012

Briefing 110 / Asia

Managing Land Conflict in Timor-Leste

Measures to resolve land disputes in Timor-Leste must go beyond a draft law on land titling if they are to comprehensively reduce the risks posed, otherwise the law could bring more problems than solutions.


Eight years after independence, Timor-Leste is still without a legal basis for determining ownership of land. In its absence, the challenges of enforcing property rights have grown more complex and increased the potential for conflict. The politically charged task of sifting through overlapping claims inherited from the country’s two colonial administrations has been complicated by widespread illegal occupation of property after the displacement of over half the population that followed the 1999 referendum. The legal and social uncertainties this created magnified the effects of the country’s 2006 crisis, causing further mass displacement in the capital and beyond. Resolution of these uncertainties through new laws, regulations and policies is necessary to reduce conflict, diminish the risk of further instability and to provide a clear way to resolve past and future disputes.

Land disputes have grown out of a history of displacement that includes forced relocations, military occupation and deadly internal upheavals. Despite this troubled history, few disputes over land ownership lead to violence. Many have been resolved or at least managed through informal mediation, a marker of the strength of customary understandings of land tenure and local communities. Yet some cases remain beyond the capacity of village chiefs, local elders or religious leaders to fix. Others are “pending” in anticipation of long-promised legislation expected to clarify cases that have complex (and undocumented) historical roots. The risk is that this has created expectations that legislation alone will be unable to meet. Many of these issues are more political than technical and will not be resolved by the application of titling laws. Given the weaknesses of the Timorese legal system, support to existing mediation will need to be strengthened alongside new laws to provide a realistic option for those parties ready to settle out of court.

Draft legislation on land titling before parliament will be an important first step towards better management of land disputes and pave the way to enforcement of a new civil code to govern all property rights. It will provide the first legal proof of ownership and provide protections in a growing property market. It will also raise the stakes in ownership disputes and thus the risk of conflict. While the collection of land claims underway in many of the country’s urban areas has shown the level of disputes to be below 10 per cent, it has also brought dormant issues to the surface, such as problems with intra-familial inheritance and tensions over land between communities.

The government has so far been unable to provide alternative housing to the displaced or evicted, an essential element of the constitutional right to housing. A worst-case scenario is for a new land administration system that would legalise dispossession without providing basic protections to those who may be evicted due to either illegal occupation or government expropriation. Land in Dili and other urban areas is already at a premium. Protections in the draft legislation for land held under customary ownership – the vast majority of the nation’s land – are very weak, especially in the face of broad powers granted to the state. In many communities, the individual titles offered by the new legislation are unlikely to be appropriate or in demand. It is the government’s prerogative to develop the country, but without agreeing to clear and enforceable protections for those who will require resettlement, it risks simply creating discontent and rejection of the state’s authority, weakening the very rights it seeks to reinforce. The government’s new ambitious plans for development by 2030 make resolution of such questions more urgent.

Strengthening property rights in Timor-Leste will require more than a law. It needs further consultation and agreement on how to manage community land holdings, particularly as the country seeks to encourage new investment. To address these concerns, a medium-term goal should be to develop a comprehensive land use policy that incorporates community priorities. Earlier donor-driven attempts have fallen short. High-level government engagement and improved mediation will also be required to solve many of the political challenges that surround the more intractable land disputes. While a law on titling remains the first step, to date the draft is poorly understood. Broader debate anchored by wider public information on the law and its implications should be a prerequisite for its passage. This needs to be balanced against the risk of creating even more delays.

As the government plans for accelerated development and identifies areas for donor support, its priorities should include:

  • further consultation and explanation of the implications of the land law and associated legislation before passage by parliament;
  • immediate clarification on basic protections and resettlement plans for those who will have to move after being deemed illegal occupants;
  • engagement with local communities on how the government can protect the rights of communities and access to land held under customary tenure;
  • strengthened support to informal mediation processes alongside the formal land titling; and
  • beginning discussion on a comprehensive land and housing policy that would incorporate community needs and government objectives.

Dili/Brussels, 9 September 2010