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Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
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

Commentary / Asia

Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?

Timor-Leste seems to have passed the test. With last Saturday’s parliamentary poll, it has now held three elections this year without significant violence. This will allow for the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission whose 1,100-strong police component has long seemed out of synch with local realities. Its violent recent past may increasingly look like history, although the poor country that celebrated only the 10th anniversary of the restoration of its independence in May still faces numerous challenges.

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced as provisional results show only four parties due to take seats in parliament (official results are due next week). A look at the seat results shows that the CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) has increased its share from 18 to 30 seats, and looks likely to form another government with former coalition partner Partido Democrático (eight seats) and maybe Frenti-Mudança (two seats).This is good for stability in the short term, but it also carries risks. A stronger government composed of fewer parties may be able to pursue clearer legislative objectives, but it will put great pressure on FRETILIN as perhaps the only party in opposition. As a young country only ten years on from independence, Timor-Leste’s parliament continues to consider questions of fundamental importance to the country’s future on which there is much debate, such as how to spend the billions in its Petroleum Fund, or how to structure land administration. Chosen from party lists and not constituencies, giving them little incentive to engage with communities, Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians to date have struggled to provide either an effective check on the executive or a constructive partner by initiating their own legislation. CNRT’s dominance will mean less active scrutiny and will further erode its role as an instrument of accountability.

The elections were not violence-free. There were some minor incidents of stone throwing and a report of three houses being burnt in Viqueque district in the last few days. But even in this volatile part of Timor-Leste, it was much less than the hundreds burnt around the 2007 polls. When we visited the district in May and asked why, the answer from the police, local government, chefes de suco, and civil society workers alike was unanimous – the threats from heads of the police and army had worked. Their blunt warnings that troublemakers would be shot were backed up with high-profile joint patrols and those contemplating violence got the message. It was a victory for “conflict prevention” that raised new questions about how the country will be governed in the future.