Timor Leste’s Successful Local Elections: A Positive Sign for the Future?

By Jeremy Gross
On Friday, October 9, the people of Timor-Leste went to the polls to elect their local suco council members. There are over 440 of these councils, and the voting took place at 748 polling stations throughout the country.
Formally gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a UN-administered transition, Timor-Leste has not had an easy start. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed by the departing Indonesians and their supporters. Then in April and May 2006, Dili was rocked by violence between the military and police after one-third of the military was dismissed. This violence spread to civilian gangs in many neighborhoods of the capital, continuing up until March 2007. The fighting resulted in a return of foreign peacekeepers, as well as a large number of internally displaced people the government had to deal with. Further violence related to pre-existing social tensions broke out in 2007 around the presidential election, though confined to a few hotspots, and in the following year the president was critically injured in a dawn raid on his home by disgruntled elements within the military. The economy has been distorted by the high prices associated with the large international aid and peace-keeping missions, despite local citizens suffering from some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in Asia.
At first glance, this may not sound like fertile ground for either peaceful nor free and fair elections. However, although minor incidents were reported by the 1,500 election observers deployed by the Church Watch for Social Affairs (OIPAS), none of these were serious enough to detract from the overall credibility of last week’s elections. And indeed, the determination of people to vote was clearly visible. In polling station after polling station, long queues of voters formed. I was there serving as the Foundation’s technical advisor, and many voters I spoke to had waited in line under the hot sun for an hour or more. While perhaps not detecting a sense of excitement amongst voters, I did gather from my discussions that they connected their own participation in the elections to making an effort to improve conditions in their own neighborhoods.
Unlike local councils elsewhere, suco councils do not have a legislative role, and those elected are not part of the official government structure. Rather, the suco councils are there to focus on finding solutions to local problems and carrying out necessary local functions. For example, the councils are responsible for conducting a census of the population, promoting the official state languages, and also play a role in maintaining local infrastructure, especially the notoriously poor quality roads, as well as schools and health clinics.
To defuse tensions, these elections were made non-political. That is, the elections were contested by competing teams (of 10 members to fill all the council positions), and in the name of individuals rather than as members or candidates of political parties. This is not to deny that some candidates were well known to have political allegiances, but by excluding political parties from being active in these elections, it allowed the elections to focus more on local issues and less on the relative popularity of one political party over another.
While most elections were fought between multiple competing teams, 10 percent had only one team standing, thus allowing the team to win by default rather than competition. While it is not possible to force candidates to step forward, for the future, amendments to the law should explore other options, for example, giving voters the choice to reject the one option on offer if they so wish.
More positively, perhaps these elections will contribute to a strengthening of the concept of public service. Because of the unique role of suco councils, those elected are not given the role of awarding lucrative contracts, thus disassociating themselves entirely from the predictable power of patronage evident in so many political figures.
In any case, these elections passed off relatively smoothly. But people are already asking whether these peaceful elections portend well for the future. While there are some positive signs emanating from the elections, it must be noted that the suco elections are very different from the upcoming municipal elections in 2010, and the national elections in 2012.
The difference will be the presence of those factors absent from the suco elections: political parties and patronage. For both types of up-coming elections, competition will be far fiercer as there will be more to gain from winning in terms of access to government positions and resources. With political parties openly returning to the fore, the types of campaigns that will be fought will be very different from those at the suco level.
However, tempering this will be a growing maturity among political leaders who will push a national peace agenda over political self-interest, hopefully preventing Timor-Leste from returning to the dark days of 2006-07.
There will also be a role for civil society in this promotion of peace over conflict. Credible civil society groups must get active now, educating the public about what is at stake, and to counsel the public against being easily provoked. Furthermore, civil society must monitor political party campaign promises, and push them to be more accountable for their actions. If that happens, then the suco elections will have become a firm foundation upon which to build a more peaceful politics in Timor-Leste.
Jeremy Gross is The Asia Foundation’s Election Program Manager in Indonesia. He was in Timor-Leste to provide technical assistance for election work and was recently quoted in an Agence France-Presse article on local elections there. He can be reached at [email protected].