As Western appetite for international intervention is eroded by growing nationalist and isolationist sentiment, Timor Leste presents a timely reminder of the value of defending the freedoms of the oppressed. It is one of Southeast Asia’s smallest, poorest and newest nations. But it is also its most democratic and, despite being mired in a month’s long political stalemate, the only regional country trending towards greater democracy. Counterintuitively, the current political crisis it faces actually highlights the Timorese commitment to democratic ideals. Meanwhile, its leadership on several globally relevant issues demonstrates how empowering and supporting like-minded fragile nations strengthens the rules-based international order. As such, it provides a timely reminder to the West of the importance of recommitting to the pursuit of foreign policy centered on the promotion of shared pro-democratic values.
It has been nearly twenty years since a multinational peacekeeping force deployed to East Timor (as it was then known) to stop the violence and bloodshed resulting from the country’s vote for independence from Indonesia. This is a good amount of time to look back on the intervention with some historical context and to evaluate its relative success. In doing so, however, it is important to bear several things in mind. Firstly, the Timorese are free and democratic today because the international community valued their freedom and acted to empower their democracy. There were no ulterior motives of preventing terrorism or securing strategic resources. It even occurred before the concept of Responsibility to Protect was fully developed , a concept that has almost eroded to extinction .
The second is that the success of nation building is subjective and difficult to effectively define. Any evaluation of Timor’s relative success and current challenges must be considered within the context that they established rule of law and a functioning democracy from scratch in less than a generation. They did this following the devastation of decades of brutal occupation and with barely any infrastructure—either physical or in human capital. Their progress since the intervention must be considered within the context of international interventions since and development of similarly new fragile states, many of which have had longer timeframes, greater aid and better residual infrastructure to build from.
A clear-eyed evaluation of Timor’s success to date should not gloss over ongoing concerns and challenges either. The current political crisis is a good illustration of the challenges and risks that remain, though also demonstrates the country’s progress. Today’s political stalemate began with a successful parliamentary election. About 77 percent of the Timorese population voted in the July 2017 parliamentary elections—20 percent of whom did so for the first time. The first parliamentary elections to be held without United Nations assistance, they were described by observers as “free and fair.”
The outcome was incredibly close, with around a thousand votes separating the two major parties: Fretilin, the political party which led the fight for independence, and CNRT, the party created by Timor Leste’s most prominent politician and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao. Of the sixty-five seats, Fretilin won twenty-three to CNRT’s twenty-two. Three smaller parties won the remaining seats: the People’s Liberation Party won eight; the Democratic Party won seven; and the newly formed “disenfranchised youth” party, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), won five. Sixteen other parties failed to gather sufficient votes to win a seat.
Many expected the two titans of Timorese politics, Fretilin and CNRT, to maintain the status quo “consensus” politics by forming another unity government. Instead, Xanana Gusmao took the drop in CNRT’s election share (from 36.7 percent at the last election to 28 percent this year) as a sign from the electorate that it was time for a change, and declared CNRT would form a strong opposition.
It is from here that the stalemate developed. Fretilin attempted to form a government with two of the smaller parties, but Khunto withdrew at the last moment. This left Fretilin with insufficient seats to form a majority government. The remaining parties joined together to form a majority opposition and repeatedly blocked Fretilin’s legislative agenda. After months of political deadlock, the recently elected—and Fretilin aligned—President Francisco “Lu’Olo” Guterres dissolved parliament and declared that “the people must be called to vote once again in order to help, to overcome the challenge that lies (ahead) in our young democracy.” President Guterres laid blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of a handful of influential leaders, who he says turned “their backs to each other.”
This crisis highlights several of the key challenges and underlying problems in Timor’s political landscape. There is a lack of understanding of key issues amongst the wider electorate, a history of turmoil and growing discontentment . In particular—and of most relevance to the current situation—it is still heavily influenced by a handful of personalities that are predominantly from older generations who fought for independence. While those leaders have contributed much to Timor’s development to date, it has raised concerns about the fragility of the system and created perceptions of corruption and incompetence from Timor’s overwhelmingly youthful population.
But there are positive signs from this unfortunate situation. It demonstrates how deeply ingrained democratic values are in the Timorese population. The situation has come about because all involved have stuck doggedly to process and adherence to the constitution, and it is the immaturity of the processes that is a major cause. The recent election demonstrates pluralism and strong engagement in the political system. While it resulted in the current stalemate, the return of a strong opposition actually assists the country in addressing a major concern about its political system. Most importantly, while previous political crises have led to violence and unrest, there has not yet been any signs of repeat unrest this time, though this could rapidly change in the upcoming elections.
Timor Leste’s democratic project is far from complete, and its future success will ultimately be decided by economic growth. Its economy is still heavily dependent on natural resource extraction, particularly from offshore oil and gas. While the nation has made some savvy decisions in investing the wealth generated from its resources, without wider distribution of that wealth ongoing security and stability cannot be ensured. The future success of Southeast Asia’s most democratic nation will therefore be determined by its ability to use its resource wealth to diversify its economy and create job opportunities .
The current situation comes at a particularly unfortunate time. The country’s future wealth has received an important boost after reaching broad agreement with Australia over a long and bitter permanent maritime boundaries dispute. While final details of the agreement have not been confirmed, early analysis suggests that it will be a significant boost to East Timor’s future prosperity. More importantly, it provides some certainty that will assist in future planning and attracting further investment . But the political situation undermines the momentum of this success and delays the realization of its benefits. Until recently, Timor’s leaders had made this issue apolitical and left it out of their campaigns. It would be unfortunate if it became political fodder in the new round of elections. Timor’s leaders need to continue to show vision and leadership to move past this impasse and get back to governing for their people.