Timor-Leste’s First Independent Election: Peace And Progress Or Political Instability?


July saw Timor-Leste, or East Timor, undertake its first independent parliamentary election peacefully and enthusiastically, after generations of occupation, war and political instability. However, with Timorese hero and leader of the losing CNRT party, Xanana Gusmao, deciding to withdraw his party from plans to form a coalition government, many are wondering if the political stability of the nation will be disrupted.

This move has thrown the government into upheaval. Gusmao, former Timorese president and prime minister, and the leading political figure in Timor-Leste championed the parliamentary majority alliance in 2015, under which the two major political parties have governed peacefully. Gusmao said at the time that he considered a “government of national unity” crucial for the stability it brings Timor Leste. Gusmao has now announced that his Nation Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CRNT) party will not be reinstating the coalition with its opposition, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin party, who won the late July elections by a small margin. Mr. Gusmao said the CRNT party “will not accept proposals from anyone, nor invite any party to form a coalition because it does not intend to participate in government.”

Through the coalition, Gusmao has been leading Timorese Australian negotiations over the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, located in the Timor Sea. Negotiations are mainly centred around the maritime border between Australia and Timor, agreed in 1972. Australia is currently applying considerable pressure to move this line north, claiming that the Australian territory ends at the edge of the Australian continental shelf, at a trough, a deep channel which runs parallel to the Timorese coastline, around 40 nautical miles offshore. There is much contention and little definitive evidence that the trough marks the edge of the shelf, which many experts think runs underneath both Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Though there is a lack of consensus, Australia has claimed much of the contested area through exploration permits issued in the 1960’s. The income from oil and gas is essential to Timor-Leste’s economy, and without the Greater Sunrise oil and gas, they will experience devastating financial hardship. There is now concern that this disruption to government organization will have negative repercussions for the Greater Sunrise negotiations.

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is the eastern half of the island of Timor,  as well as Atauro and Jaco islands, and the enclave of Oecussi in West Timor. It is an hour and 20-minute flight from Australia’s northern coast and shares a land border with Indonesia, who governs the western half of Timor island. Colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, Timor-Leste became independent in 1974, but nine days later was invaded by Indonesia and subjected to Indonesian occupation. The period of Indonesian rule was extremely brutal, with the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor reporting a minimum of 102,800 deaths caused by occupation. These deaths were caused both by the skirmishes and clashes of East Timorese guerrilla forces and Indonesian authorities and by the illness, hunger and conditions of poverty that were exacerbated by the regime.

The Timorese spend 24 years resisting Indonesia, and Timor-Leste’s independence in 1999, and admission to the United Nations in 2002 have been greatly celebrated victories for the Timorese people. Helped by the UN, Timor-Leste set up a democracy upon its independence, holding their first three elections under UN guidance, which despite being overseen, were not always peaceful. In 2006, the election outcome spurred violent conflict between the army and rebel soldiers.

Timor-Leste’s fourth and first independently orchestrated election was held on July 22 and was overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative. After their vote was cast, the people had their right index finger dipped in ink, a measure to prevent multiple voting. 583,000 people were recorded voting, which is about 76% of Timor-Leste’s population, an impressive turnout rate for a political system in which voting is not compulsory. The CNRT party won 29.5% of votes, with the Fretilin party winning 29.7, and declaring victory. However with Gusmao’s decision, and the dismantling of the coalition of these two parties, the Fretilin will not have a majority government. Timor-Leste expert Damien Kingsbury said the nation entered the election expecting that Fretilin and the CNRT would continue to be the strongest parties, and would continue to be united in the coalition that has ensured political stability since 2015. “That stability is now in question,” he said, “Timor-Leste’s political unity that promised such stability now appears broken.”

Gusmao has taken responsibility for the loss, saying it shows that Timorese clearly “do not trust the CNRT to govern” anymore. This is reflected in some Timorese attitudes towards the government, especially in relation to youth poverty, unemployment and suffering. “The government has not paid attention to the youth, they only take care of themselves and their families,” says Ronaldo Manuel Ximenes Caldeira, a young Timorese man, struggling to find work. According to another young man, Sabino de Araujo Soares Lere, there is “no hope of finding a job” without family or political connections in Dili. Timor-Leste’s 2013 labour force survey found that youth unemployment was at over 20%, with young men less likely to be employed than young women. As over 60% of Timor-Leste’s population is under 25, this is a considerable percentage of the population. As former president and resistance fighter Taur Matan Ruak said before the elections, “If we don’t know how to involve young people in the development process, they can become a time bomb.”

Far from fearing what Gusmao’s decision will bring, however, Jose Ramos-Horta, former president and prime minister of Timor-Leste, has praised Gusmao as “gallantly” honouring the people’s decision in voting out his party: “Now it is simple. It is incumbent on Dr Mari Alkatiri to actively engage other parties in forging a government that will continue to consolidate peace and democracy in Timor-Leste (East Timor), build on many positive achievements the country has experienced, improve on what has been successful, change where it has to change.” Alkatiri has embraced the new governing role, saying the day after elections that the Fretilin party will “do everything to embrace anyone and will continue to work with Xanana Gusmao, the inescapable figure of the country, in order to respond to the clear message from our people.”

As the government works to reorganize, many wonder how the shifting political dynamics will affect the country’s future and peace. Many fear political unrest similar to that of 2006, with numbers of unemployed and dissatisfied youth rising. The future of the economy could also be affected by the changes, with the gas and oil reserves essential to Timor-Leste, and insistently claimed by Australia, being possibly jeopardized in the political confusion. However, despite these concerns, the young nation continues to strive for peace, and despite the challenges, is remaining largely free of conflict. Hope for the future, progress, and prosperity rely on the nation remaining united, which Gusmao seems to feel is possible without the coalition or his political leadership.

Eleanor Goodbourn