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Some things change, some don’t in Timor-Leste

Alberto da Silva stood on a rise, in a red tightly zipped jacket against the ‘cool’ of the  morning,  surveying the voters for Timor-Leste’s presidential election lined up in the village of Leohitu just below. Leohitu sits at the end of about six kilometres of varyiable dirt road at the end of an often shaded valley. Leohitu has one point of running water for its community and remains part of Timor-Leste’s 20 per cent or so that still does not have electricity.

Of the six villages in the sub-district, Leohitu was of the four able to be reached by vehicle at the end of the wet season. In some other villages, voting materials had to be taken in to polling stations by pack-horse or by foot.   

Leohitu, however, was accessible and is a relatively prosperous village by local standards. It has fertile soil and, at the end of the wet season, a good supply of ground water.

Alberto had already voted and was now talking to an Australian volunteer dentist who, a few days before, had removed four of his teeth. Alberto pointed to his mouth with a big gap-toothed smile.

Alberto was very interested in the presidential elections, having run as a Fretilin candidate in the 2016 village elections. He had lost to the Democratic Party (PD) candidate. This part of Timor-Leste tends to be a PD stronghold and Fretilin lost popularity soon after the country gained independence in 2002, marking part of the politico-geographic divide that was evident in the troubles of 2006.

Losing the bad teeth had immediately diminished Alberto’s pain and improved his health, as it had with many others who had benefitted from the volunteer dentist’s work. Timor-Leste has less than a handful of dentists and health care remained low on the government’s list of spending priorities. Dental care was generally not available.

Health care received just 4.2 per cent of Timor-Leste’s budget in 2016-2017. There is one hospital in Dili and rudimentary hospitals in the next biggest towns of Baucau and Maliana, with basic health clinics in sub-district capitals. Two or three dental practices operate privately in the whole of the country, supplemented by occasional volunteer dentists.

With the beginning of the decentralisation of state functions to municipalities, the Bobonaro Municipality President, Zeferino dos Santos, identified his priorities as securing a regular water supply, improving roads and improving access to education. Health care ran a distant fourth.

In a country in which local water supply is often seasonal, access to potable water is critical, yet infrastructure remains underdeveloped. Education remained basic, particularly in the outlying villages. Some children walked several kilometres to go to school.

Roads, however, have been a major government priority, along with other areas of infrastructure. Just a few days before, along with winding, cliff-hugging coast road to the Indonesian border, Timor-Leste’s former President, Prime Minister and resistance leader, now Minister for Planning and Strategic Investment, Xanana Gusmao, sat by the side of one of the expensive, new sections of the coast road, staring morosely into a large gap where several metres of the road had slid into the sea below.

Everyone in Timor-Leste agrees that roads are a priority in order to facilitate trade and communication. Road conditions are, however, often very poor to sometimes impassable. The northern coast road was intended to be an infrastructure show-piece. Yet the unstable geology of the island continued to conspire against it, as it had always done.

Road building has been a major source of government spending until this year, when infrastructure spending was slashed. It has also been a major source of lucrative non-tendered contracts, budget blow-outs and, allegedly, corruption.

Xanana Gusmao was surveying the landslide where his road had been following a trip to Timor-Leste’s enclave of Oecussi, in Indonesian West Timor, where the government is building a casino in the hope of attracting gamblers from Indonesia and China. Oecussi is otherwise the most impoverished part of a very poor country. The casino project, being overseen by Fretilin head Mari Alkatiri, also featured regularly on the corruption rumor mill.

In the presidential election on 20 March, Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT strongly supported the candidacy of Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres. Fretilin and CNRT form the current coalition government, following their reconciliation two years ago. The choice of Lu-Olo as president in part reflected ‘his turn’ as a senior former resistance fighter who had not yet enjoyed a senior government post.

But, more importantly, it also signaled Fretilin and CNRT’s intention to again rule together should they be successful in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, expected in early July. In part reflecting Fretilin’s locked in support base of around 29 per cent of the voting public, and Xanana Gusmao’s role as ‘king or king-maker’, it was unsurprising that Lu-Olo was elected as president and only slightly less unsurprising that he managed a clear majority of 57 per cent in the first presidential round, thereby avoiding a run-off election. 

Out-going President Taur Matan Ruak and his recently created People’s Liberation Party (PLP), formally headed by former anti-corruption commissioner Aderito Soares, say that fighting corruption is their priority. In the presidential election, the PLP supported current Education Minister and PD candidate Antonio da Conceicao. Interestingly, given the PLP’s public position, da Conceicao’s name has also been circulating in the corruption rumor mill.   

With no electoral history, it was unclear how a PLP-supported candidate would fare, although PD’s personally popular presidential candidate, Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araujo polled 17 per cent in 2012. However, with de Araujo’s death in 2015, it was thought PD’s vote would decline, perhaps closer to the 11 per cent it polled in 2007.

That da Conceicao ended up with 33 per cent of the vote was a strong outcome. The remainder of the vote was shared by six other candidates, including one woman, Angela Frietas of the leftist Timorese Workers Party, who received less than one per cent of the vote.

The presidential vote was important because Timor-Leste’s president, although largely ceremonial, acts as a balance against the occasional excesses of the executive and the legislature.  

But most importantly, Timor-Leste’s presidential elections shape the battleground for the later parliamentary elections, and the likely prospects of the respective parties. Despite problems with access to potable water, poor roads, limited educational opportunities and very basic health care, the issues for 2017 revolved around ‘stability’, offered by Fretilin and CNRT, and corruption, opposed by PLP and PD.

Based on the results of the presidential election, it would appear that ‘stability’ is likely to remain in place following the parliamentary elections, not least because Xanana Gusmao remains the towering figure in Timor-Leste’s politics. Positively, for those who value plural politics, the PLP and PD are likely to form a viable opposition, especially if joined by the other, even smaller, parties.

While all parties appear committed to achieving an equidistant boundary in the Timor Sea dispute with Australia based on the principles of the Convention of the Law of the Sea, Lu-Olo was ambiguous on the subject. This is set against a major reduction in infrastructure spending between 2015-16 and 2016-17 and an overall budget reduction of about 15 per cent.

Timor-Leste’s economy runs on receipts from the Timor Sea oil fields, which are now drying up. The country has been using capital from its US$16 billion sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund at almost 200 per cent beyond sustainable, interest only, limits. At this rate of spending, Timor-Leste will be flat broke within a decade.

It is uncertain whether a win for Timor-Leste in the Timor Sea will produce its original intended goal of on-shore liquid natural gas (LNG) processing, in turn intended to kick-start a petro-chemical industry. However, certainty around the Timor Sea may see other, less grandiose, options open up which, with more modest spending, could stave off financial ruin.

Neither side of Timor-Leste’s politics debate this matter in public and it is not an election issue. But, over the next five years, this will be the overwhelmingly most important issue of the incoming president and the new government. Having a viable Opposition will at least help enhance accountability on this most critical issue, even if the relative neglect in the regions and their immediate needs is unlikely to substantially change.