Ambassador Curtis Chin Reflects on Experience as IRI Election Observer in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste on the road to democracy. Next stop, Asean? 

The Nation

By Curtis Chin

As Cambodia and Thailand apparently move forward with their own versions of democracy, the small nation of Timor-Leste has once again set an example for the regional grouping that it deserves to join – Asean.

The recent certification of Timor-Leste’s parliamentary election brings months of political deadlock to a close in this young democracy that shares an island with Indonesia just northwest of Australia. On June 22, one-time independence fighter Taur Matan Ruak was appointed as prime minister of this Southeast Asian nation and would-be-member of Asean. Tour Matan Ruak, which means “two sharp eyes”, is the nom-de-guerre of Jose Maria de Vasconcelos.

The relatively undramatic second attempt to form a working government in less than a year through elections has confirmed the tiny island nation’s status as one of the most stable democracies in the region – an achievement that was almost unthinkable less than 20 years ago. Timor-Leste President Francisco Guterres had dissolved Parliament in January after then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s minority government faced a legislative stalemate.

I had the privilege of watching these snap elections up close as part of an international observation mission led by the International Republican Institute (IRI) – my second stint in that role in Timor-Leste in less than 12 months. After two jam-packed days of briefings, I departed for Bobonaro in the west of the country to monitor proceedings on election day. 

On the morning of voting, I woke up early to observe opening procedures at one of the country’s 1,151 polling stations. A line had already formed when I arrived as citizens eagerly awaited their chance to cast a ballot. I moved on to observe voting at other polling stations, struck by the enthusiasm of voters evident throughout the day. 

In one constituency, villagers happily joined a traditional Timorese dance taking place outside of the station, displaying their sense of community and culture. Voters also showed a sense of pride in carrying out this civic duty, each proudly displaying an ink-stained finger to show they had voted. 

The centres were staffed with dedicated staff from the National Elections Commission and the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration, and a final election observer team report from IRI found their performance competent and often admirable throughout the process. 

Neither the rain nor the poor road conditions could stop the people of Timor-Leste from exercising their right to vote. More than 80 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, with women’s participation almost equalling that of men. In contrast, just 60 per cent of eligible voters took part in the 2016 US presidential election. The turnout, I believe, is a sign of the country’s citizens’ commitment to the democratic process and determination to build a better future for their nation.

To the casual observer, the political impasse that brought on this snap election may have looked like that of yet another small developing country struggling to find its footing. Yet, a closer look reveals just the opposite – the maturation and consolidation of this young and vibrant democracy. 

This election was called after the parliament elected in July 2017 proved unable to pass a government budget or legislative programme. Instead of resorting to violence – as has happened in the past – political leaders in Timor-Leste had gained the confidence to solve their differences through constitutional processes and the ballot box. The election reaffirmed the dedication of both the government and Timor-Leste citizens to democratic principles and processes – affirming the country’s well-deserved highest rating for democracy in Southeast Asia in 2017 by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

It is no small feat that this once war-torn, fragile state has become a beacon of democracy at a time when democratic backsliding is on the rise throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Still, the recent political upset in Malaysia, which saw a 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, return to power in an election just days before Timor-Leste’s own election day, has also given hope to some. A democratic renewal is still possible in the region even as democracies here and elsewhere are under threat. 

The tremendous strides made by Timor-Leste since it regained its independence from Indonesia deserves to be recognised and known to a much larger audience. Timor-Leste, an aspirant to Asean, has taken another step closer to the enhanced opportunities for political cooperation and economic exchanges that come with Asean membership. 

Most importantly, the recent election in Timor-Leste is a signal to the wider region that the hard work of building a functioning democracy can indeed pay off in the end with the peaceful transition of power. Now the much larger challenge remains. 

The leaders of Timor-Leste must move from running an election to running a nation, and in doing so unite a country in efforts to reduce poverty, stamp out corruption and wisely develop gas and oil resources.

That path forward is a goal that all of Asean and the region should support and embrace, if not emulate.

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