Keeping Democracy Alive in Timor Leste

Keeping Democracy Alive in Timor Leste

by Nurul Izzati Kamrulbahri

If one is an avid observer of Southeast Asia’s political landscape, one would also be familiar with its colorful political dynamics. Authoritarianism, exploitation of identity politics, and restriction of democracy have plagued the region for decades and, over the years, have become increasingly played out amidst political power contestation amongst different entities with different sets of interests and goals in mind.

In the thick of these developments, the region saw two major elections happening in Malaysia and Timor-Leste in early May 2018. Both elections were similarly historical yet led to dissimilar impacts and reaction.  While Malaysia recent historic political change is laudable, the struggle of ensuring smooth democratic processes in the country has been historically rough. The same can be said about the rest of Southeast Asia. While the region’s infrastructural and financial developments have grown at a positive pace, dissenting voices are not always celebrated. Rather, they are often policed through numerous draconian laws that restrain freedom of speech and dissent.

Like a wildflower, Timor-Leste flourished to grow as an outlier to the rest of Southeast Asia’s nations. As stated in the Democracy Index report conducted by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Timor-Leste scored the highest among its neighbors. Similarly, a 2017 report conducted by Freedom House that measured political rights and civil liberties rated Timor-Leste as “free,” while Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, and Myanmar were rated as “partly free” and the rest of the region as “not free.”

How does democratic space manage to navigate with relatively easier flow in Timor-Leste, despite the country’s occasional violent clashes and political unrest, compared to the rest of the region? In answering this question, there are at least two recognizable key contributing factors that could help explain the phenomenon.

The first key factor is the vibrancy of youth movements and youth participation in Timor-Leste. With over 60 percent of its population under the age of twenty-five, simmering frustrations have always been channeled by the active involvement of young people in civil society organizations, mainly those that aim to address unemployment and inequality. Despite lingering uncertainties about the country’s pace in catching up to the rest of the region mainly in areas concerning economic, financial, and infrastructure developments, as well as skepticism about the over-participation of older generations in politics, Timor-Leste’s youth see significant impacts in projecting their voices through activism and participation within the democratic spaces provided by both governmental and non-governmental bodies.

Youth groups like Lao Hamutuk, Hatutan, Alola Foundation, and Arte Moris have dedicated their resources to encourage discussions of diverse issues and confidence-building measures over the past two decades. Additionally, in 2010, the Foinsa’e Parliament (youth parliament) was set-up by the government to introduce democratic processes and civic participation to 130 youths between the ages of fifteen and nineteen years old. This activism paves the way for youth-based political parties like KHUNTO, which won five seats in the National Parliament in the 2017 election, to take up meaningful positions in national governance. Moreover, KHUNTO’s ability to attract large votes from the rural area signifies the party’s ability to command the attention of disenfranchised youths in not just the capital Dili, but all over the country.

At the same time, Timor-Leste's democratic maturity has also been associated by societies' openness in recognizing and celebrating vulnerable groups. By acknowledging the importance of empowering these groups for the country’s long-term socio-economic development, significant resources have been devoted to deliver the right avenues for these communities to voice out their opinions and, consequently, to craft effective and issues-sensitive policies. The case of banning contraceptives for unmarried women, for example, has been one of the most recent debates surrounding women’s rights in Timor-Leste, and subsequently highlights the country’s willingness to acknowledge the importance of celebrating different views, beliefs and ideologies.

In a separate scene, more than 500 people took part in Timor-Leste’s first ever pride parade in July 2017 to celebrate the LGBTQI community after then-Prime Minister Rui Maria De Araujo openly stated his recognition of the group. Even though same-sex marriage is still not legal in Timor-Leste, the warm acceptance from both the country’s leaders and its people breathes hope into the future of inclusivity, equality and democracy in the country -- particularly at times when some countries in the region are battling the exploitation of identity politics in favor of demeaning power brawls.

    However, for all the optimism, it is not always sunshine and rainbows in Timor-Leste. Even with a praiseworthy democracy, the processes are not always peaceful. In 2016, youth unemployment stood at 16.7 percent and the poverty rate was 40 percent. Occasional violence, such as that which emerged throughout the 28 days of campaigning before the recent election, was of no surprise to keen observers of Timor-Leste’s political events. Against this backdrop, violence and political unrest are not new phenomena. Owing to its nusantara roots, the manifestation of ongoing instability has been mostly demonstrated by the Timorese in the form of martial-arts fighting and has been fueled by former resistance fighters’ romanticization of conflict and struggle.

Like many other Southeast Asian countries, personality politics can also tend to dominate in Timor-Leste. After years of political absence, Xanana Gusmao made a surprising political comeback after defeating Freitlin’s Mari Alkatiri, who is often considered his arch-nemesis. Both have held premier positions twice since the country gained independence in 2002.  Gusmao, the first President and fourth Prime Minister of Timor-Leste is a pivotal leader and an old elite of Timor-Leste -- well-known for his ambitious plans for the country's infrastructural development. Like Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri is another key leader with strong personalities to match. Being Muslim in a majority Catholic country, his appointment as a Prime Minister in itself was a projection of Timor-Leste’s democratic maturity.

The relations between the two have also seen ups and down throughout the years. Gusmao was particularly outspoken towards Alkatiri’s administration in 2006 when the latter was accused of arming a secret civilian security team at times when the country was at the brink of a civil war. The relationship only saw a brief stint of consensus when Gusmao elected Dr Rui Araujo from Freitlin to hold the post of Prime Minister, ushering in a period of cross-parties cooperation – only to be broken after the 2017 Presidential election when Freitlin refused to elect a Prime Minister from CNRT.

Despite Alkatiri’s and Gusmao’s strong personalities and popularity, observers are pessimistic about the possibility of eliminating dominance of old elites in their power struggles. Personality such as Gusmao, Alkatiri, and other leaders of resistance movements could in a long-run pose negative impact to the grassroots, specifically to the potential young leaders in the country. The fact that both leaders have conveniently ignored the people’s demand for a younger line-up of leaders after the previous two elections signaled the elites’ refusal to step out of the game.

Regardless, Timor-Leste’s democratic resiliency in era of intolerance is something worth emulating. Despite existing major socio-economic challenges, the young country strives to remain poised in guaranteeing overall stability, and the new government ought to pay attention in paving more ways to encourage a more modern and inclusive administration.

Image: A political rally in support of Lu Olo (Baucau, Timor Leste, March 2012)

Courtesy of Kate Dixon / Flickr


Nurul Izzati Kamrulbahri is a researcher in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies programme of ISIS Malaysia. She graduated from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) with B.A (Hons) in International Relations. She is also an alumni of the DAAD-Frankfurt University ‘Social Rights, Social Justice and Social Policy’ project.

Her research interests include terrorism and radicalization in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as on ASEAN politics. Izzati previously interned with ISIS in 2013.

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