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Timor-Leste Politics: responses to questions from World Politics Review

1. How did the substance of this campaign compare to past campaigns, and what does that say about how the country is evolving more than a decade after the 2006 crisis?

Timor-Leste’s 2017 presidential elections were overwhelmingly peaceful, if colorful and sometimes noisy. The campaign process marked an increasing turn towards the normalization of politics in Timor-Leste.
The key difference in the 2017 elections compared to the 2007 and 2012 elections in particular was that the country’s two key parties, Fretilin and the Timorese Congress for National Reconstruction (CNRT), supported the same candidate, rather than supporting opposing candidates. It was notable that the candidate supported by CNRT was Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, who had previously run as Fretilin’s presidential candidate in 2007 and 2012.
CNRT’s support for Lu-Olo followed CNRT forming a new coalition with Fretilin in a ‘government of national unity’ in 2015. Fretilin’s former health minister, Rui de Araujo, was elected as prime minister. This change returned Fretilin to the centre of power following its removal from office in the 2007 elections, being replaced by a CNRT-led coalition. The 2007 elections were seen to mark an end to the conflict that had wracked Timor-Leste in 2005-06 and, along with windfall income from booming oil prices, set the country on a more politically stable course.
The 2015 ‘government of national unity’ and CNRT support for both Rui de Araujo and then Lu-Olo as president marked a consolidation of political power as well as agreement for the parties to step away from overly competitive party politics.

2. What progress has been made in reforming the security sector in East Timor, and how important has this work been to ensuring democratic gains will be consolidated?

Timor-Leste’s security sector falls into two parts; the police (PNTL) and the defence forces (Falintil-FDTL). In 2006, Falintil-FDTL was split, precipitating the worst of the violence of that year. The division approximately marked a claimed divide between those who were more loyal to Timor-Leste and those – ‘petitioners’ – who had an historic sympathy for Indonesia. PNTL was identified as retaining sympathy for Indonesia (many police were recruited from among the former Indonesia-era local police). At the end of the main period of violence, PNTL had functionally ceased to exist.
Falintil-FDTL was quickly reformed, with the ‘petitioners’ being paid out and the force recruiting new troops. PNTL was rebuilt with substantial support from the international community. International support concentrated on a more ‘community policing’ model, as practiced in New Zealand. This had some impact on the PNTL’s policing style.
Falintil-FDTL has since remained outside the political arena, as has the PNTL. The PNTL has, however, despite its redevelopment, continued to be identified as perpetrating occasional human rights abuses and regularly not following formal legal procedures. There have been claims that the PNTL’s occasional lack of professionalism undermines rule of law and, in some cases, encourages a culture of impunity.
Rule of law in Timor-Leste is also undermined by a continuing weakness in the judiciary, in terms of number of judges and timelines for hearing cases, the adequacy of judicial training, and claims of political interference in judicial matters. Timor-Leste’s convoluted language system, in which Portuguese remains the language of law, Indonesian commonly the language of defence, Tetum the lingua franca and ‘home languages’ that which respondents use has further compromised the judicial system and, subsequently, adequacy of rule of law.

3. What is the relative power of the presidency compared to the premiership and legislature, and what do the presidential results suggest for legislative elections planned for July?

Under Timor-Leste’s constitution, the President is head of state, symbol of the nation and above partisan politics, having largely symbolic powers other than in a few select areas where s/he consults with the prime minister and other senior power holders. The president does not have any executive function, which remains with the prime minister and cabinet.
However, previous presidents have tended to overstep their authority, either commenting on or sometimes engaging in subjects beyond constitutional limitations. This has been explained both by past president and by some commentators as reflecting Timor-Leste’s still developing political system and an occasional lack of capacity on the part of some politicians. The argument has been that all political leaders needed to take a role in running the state.
This crossing of constitutional boundaries (which was a feature of the presidency until 2012) and that Timor-Leste’s constitution was based on that of Portugal, has led some observers to describe the country as having a ‘semi-presidential’ political system (e.g. Portugal following constitutional changes, France, Finland, Angola, Mozambique, etc). Semi-presidentialism implies that the president has some executive authority, usually in the areas of foreign affairs and defence. This is, in fact and under the constitution, not the case in Timor-Leste, and the country is a parliamentary republic (e.g. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, Germany, Poland, etc).
The importance of the presidential elections as a predictor has been a close correlation between presidential and parliamentary election results in 2007 and 2012. Parties that ran presidential candidates in the first presidential round received a similar vote in the parliamentary elections. The 2017 presidential election, however, was different in that CNRT chose not to endorse an independent presidential candidate but rather a party candidate (Lu-Olo), from its coalition partner, Fretilin. It is likely that Lu-Olo’s overall vote of 57 per cent will reflect in the included vote of Fretilin and CNRT and that, having endorsed the same candidate, both parties will again be looking to form a coalition government.
Such a coalition government would retain stability and imply ‘business as usual’. With outgoing President Taur Matan Ruak’s People’s Liberation Party (PLP) supporting the Democratic Party (PD) candidate Antonio da Conceicao for the presidency, it is likely these two parties will form the nuclear of Timor-Leste’s post parliamentary election coalition.