Subject: AGE: Despite its immense problems, Timor is embracing democracy

The Age

Despite its immense problems, Timor is embracing democracy

July 4, 2007

The people of East Timor want to decide on their own future, writes Damien Kingsbury.

WHEN the people of East Timor went to the polls for the third time this year, they completed a political cycle that has been remarkable in part because of its relative success, but in part because it has happened at all. Yet a little over a year ago, many people thought that East Timor's fledgling democracy had failed. Had it done so, it would have been conforming to common experience.

The history of decolonisation has been that the expectations of independence have been very high, and the capacity to deliver on them very low. In most cases, rather than improving, capacity in post-colonial states has fallen following independence, and this was the case in East Timor.

What was already an impoverished territory was dealt the twin blow in 1999 of having most skilled workers leave and having its infrastructure destroyed. This followed 24 years of institutionalised violence in which about a quarter of the population died and the rest were profoundly traumatised.

When liberation arrived, it was with an expectation that all the evils of the previous quarter decade, and Portuguese colonial neglect before that, would be remedied. Not surprisingly for what is one of the world's poorest countries, the modest changes available left most disappointed and many angry.

In other post-colonial states, this experience has led to upheaval, in response to which fragile governments became increasingly authoritarian. Despite a good early start, East Timor's Fretilin government also began this slide and, by April last year, the state was in chaos.

Much blame for this chaos has also been directed at the international community, in particular the United Nations, for withdrawing too early. Australia was also guilty of that, along with acting like the regional bully over the Timor Sea oil negotiations. Australia did lead East Timor's separation from Indonesia and it has increased aid. But for 24 years Australia also denied atrocities it well knew were happening and then snatched away much of East Timor's oil. All of this has added to internal tensions and divisions.

More positively, the people of East Timor have warmly embraced electoral politics. The official turn-out for elections has officially been above 80 per cent but, allowing for out-of-date and doubled-up voter rolls, the actual turn-out has been more than 90 per cent. That puts East Timor's embrace of voluntary voting on a par with Australia's compulsory voting.

With what is looking like a small increase on its devastating presidential vote, to just above 30 per cent, Fretilin will still be the largest single party in the new parliament. As such, it should be first invited to form government. But its chances of doing so are limited, and there will most likely be a new coalition government, headed by former president Xanana Gusmao.

Despite grumbling and a few accusations, the ruling Fretilin party gracefully conceded the presidency. Privately, some of its senior ministers are now saying it is ready to accept the loss of control of parliament.

Having so badly failed to retain the confidence of the people, Fretilin will engage in some serious soul-searching. Fretilin is unlikely to change its policies, which are generally sound, but it is likely to reconsider the leadership of Mari Alkatiri and a challenge appears likely.

If acceptance of Fretilin's parliamentary defeat reflects its graceful acceptance of its defeat in the presidential elections, the coming change of government will bode very well for democratic deepening.

Indeed, East Timor appears to be making the critical step towards becoming a consolidated democracy.

The return of the international community to East Timor has helped this political process and has acted as a guarantor for its outcome.

But, in the final analysis, if the people of East Timor did not want it, the international community would have little chance to impose such a democratic guarantee.

Set against profound poverty, still very limited capacity and a sometimes ambiguous international interest, East Timor's elections will constitute proof in themselves of the young country's progress.

The elections alone will not ensure political stability, much less fulfil what are now largely empty hopes for the future.

But the recent elections do show that, despite problems, if the people are given a chance they will embrace making free decisions about their own future.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University is in-country co-ordinator of the Victorian Local Governance Association observer mission to East Timor's elections.

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