East Timor – the Youngest Country of the 21st Century in Asia

East Timor – the Youngest Country of the 21st Century in Asia

The price of independence was great, and the expectations of a Timor Leste with “Unidade, Paz no Justisia” – unity, peace and justice were accordingly high. But independence initially did not bring stability.

Building a democratic state takes time, especially since Timor-Leste could not fall back on experience. The United Nations provided obstetrics, but with independence, the infrastructure for a functioning state was inadequate. Criticism is also leveled at the fact that government institutions have little relation to the real values of most people. The international community confused the lack of recognizable state institutions with the lack of a political community.

The state institutions were still weak. At many levels government officials and civil servants were not adequately qualified to do the job. It was only in the recent years that an improvement began. Institutional weaknesses were most evident in the security sector and the judiciary. The judiciary is still poorly functional. Impunity, amnesties and political interference undermine citizens’ confidence in the rule of law and democracy. The expulsion of Portuguese judges and advisers in the judiciary in October 2014 by the government, after a corresponding resolution was passed by parliament, sparked discussions about the independence of the judiciary and the observance of the separation of powers sparked. Foreign judicial personnel were charged with incompetence after government trials against oil company Conoco Philipps for outstanding tax payments failed to produce expected results.

The security sector collapsed completely with the political crisis in the first half of 2006 and is now well on the way to finding a balance between maintaining security and safeguarding civil rights.

Democratization is making noticeable progress. The organization Freedom House classifies Timor-Leste (2018 as the only country in Southeast Asia) in the classification according to the degree of their political-civil freedom as “free”. Timor-Leste is no longer perceived as a fragile country in crisis. The once negative assessment kept East Timores feeling needy. That has changed decisively today: The people look back with great pride on the development of their country, for which they have taken more and more responsibility.

Since the 2017 elections, for the first time, East Timorese have been able to vote, who were born after the 1999 vote for independence. But the social hierarchies and the enduring fame of the country’s independence heroes make it difficult for them to get involved politically and to be heard for their concerns. About half of the 784,000 voters on the electoral roll are under 25 years of age. On paper, Timor-Leste’s vast youth population appears influential. But in practice, decisions are still made by an elite group of aging leaders from the country’s struggle for independence.

With the departure of the resistance hero Xanana Gusmão from the government in May 2020, a step towards a generation change could be taken. It will be crucial that more old heroes follow Xanana and make way for a new generation of leaders.

Presidency and Prime Minister

According to ethnicityology, the head of state of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RDTL) is the president, who is elected for five years. It primarily has a symbolic role. The constitution, which came into force on May 20, 2002, provides the President with the right to veto bills. The President appoints the Prime Minister who is the head of government. On the proposal of the Prime Minister, the President appoints the members of the government (Council of Ministers).

Timor-Leste’s first prime minister was Mari Alkatiri (Fretilin – Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente). He resigned as a result of the crisis in 2006. For a short time, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta (without party affiliation) held the office of Prime Minister. After the elections in 2007, there was a castling: Ramos-Horta became president and East Timor’s father of the nation, the resistance leader Xanana Gusmão (CNRT – Congresso Nacional da Reconstrução Timorense), who was the first president after independence, became prime minister of the country through a coalition government (AMP). In February 2015, Gusmão resigned and appointed Rui Maria de Araujo from the opposition party Fretilin as his successor. In September 2017, Mari Alkatiri took over the government again. Early elections in 2018 brought the coalition of CNRT, PLP and Khunto to the government with Taur Matan Ruak (PLP) as prime minister. At the beginning of 2020, CNRT broke the coalition. Xanana Gusmâo sought the office of prime minister in a new coalition with six parties. But even before the coalition was set up, this coalition broke up on the vote on the extension of the state of emergency to combat the corona pandemic at the end of April 2020. It has governed since then Taur Matan Ruak with the PLP, supported by the Fretilin, Khunto and PD.

In 2017, Taur Matan Ruak was succeeded by Francisco Lú-Olo Guterres from Fretilin.

Houses of Parliament

The Timor-Leste parliament consists of a maximum of 65 members who are appointed every five years. A 4% hurdle has been in place since 2017. With independence, new parties have formed. Most are heavily geared towards personalities. The strongest parties are Fretilin and CNRT, followed by Partidu Libertasaun Popular (PLP), which first appeared in 2017, with its workhorse Taur Matan Ruak. The Partido Demokratiku (PD) has been represented in parliament from the start.

Elections 2012

The 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections can be assessed as largely free and fair. The parties are increasingly distancing themselves from leaving the democratic playground in order to assert their interests and acting with intimidation, pressure and violence, or mobilizing violent youth gangs for their purposes. In the presidential elections, the last FALINTIL commander and last commander in chief of the East Timorese army F-FDTL Taur Matan Ruak sat down against Ramos-Horta and other fellow candidates. The decisive factor was probably the support of Xanana Gusmão and his party CNRT. In the parliamentary elections, too, voters clearly opted for the CNRT party. She was able to increase her share of the vote by 12.6% to 36.66% and ruled the country with the old and new Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão in coalition with the Partido Democratico and the new Frente-Mudança party. The second strongest party was Fretilin, with around 30%, which was the only party on the opposition bench. Other parties had not made it into the new parliament.

The Xanana Gusmão system

In its report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) questions Timor-Leste: Stability at what cost? (2013) critical of political and socio-economic development. The government’s spending-oriented policy to stimulate economic growth by expanding infrastructure has been poorly implemented. Too little money would go to education and health care. Overall, there is the problem of the transfer of power to potential successors of the dominant personalities from the years of resistance (generation 1975) in all leading parties.

On the other hand, the restrained stability in Timor-Leste is due to the government’s spending-oriented policy. As prime minister, Xanana Gusmão was able to keep political and social conflicts and tensions in the security sector to a minimum thanks to the high authority he enjoys as a former resistance leader. In Nov. 2013, he announced soon cede. On February 5, 2015, Xanana Gusmão submitted his resignation to “make room for the younger generation”. His resignation, so the assessments at the time, could initiate a necessary transition that would lead away from very personalized governance and towards a strengthening of democratic institutions. But he had no intention of withdrawing from politics. His resignation went hand in hand with a reshuffle and downsizing of the cabinet. Three members of the opposition party Fretlilin were also accepted. And he proposed as his successor for the office of Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo, who also belongs to the Fretilin. With that he had set the course for a government of “national unity”. The strategy of taking various political groups into government was intended to neutralize the political power struggle. Perhaps he was trying to ensure his political survival through the 2017 election out to secure. A “government of national unity” without strong opposition impaired the democratization process: criticism of the government was minimized and political accountability reduced. Xanana Gusmão herself held the powerful ministerial office for planning and strategic investments.


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