IRI Election Observer Brian Keeter Looks at Timor’s Upcoming Elections

Passionate Campaigning for Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections
Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog
By Brian C. Keeter 

This is the second in a series of posts on Timor-Leste’s July 7 parliamentary elections.

It’s great to see a vibrant democracy at work.

In Timor-Leste, political parties are wrapping up active, passionate campaigns as the July 7th parliamentary elections fast approach.

Young political activists are particularly enthusiastic. FRETILIN’s final campaign rally in the capitol of Dili was highly visible, raucous and in some ways resembled the atmosphere of World Cup soccer — painted faces, party flags worn like capes, slogans shouted in unison, loads of happy supporters driving city streets in flat-bed trucks, vans and motorcycles waving banners and singing.

FRETILIN, or the Revolutionary Front for Timor-Leste Independence, is the largest and considered the most organized of the 18 parties and three coalitions facing voters. Xanana Gusmao leads the other major party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste, or CNRT. Like many current political leaders and candidates, Gusmao is one of the heroes of Timor-Leste’s long struggle for independence.

FRETILIN and CNRT together are expected to garner the most support in proportional, party list voting for the 65-seat unicameral Parliament. But since neither party is likely to gain enough votes for a governing majority, the smaller but still influential Democratic Party may serve as “king maker,” deciding with whom to join to form a coalition government.

Timor-Leste’s road to freedom has been anything but easy. When Portuguese colonization ended in 1975, the country suffered brutal Indonesian occupation. As many as 250,000 Timorese, roughly 25 percent of the population, lost their lives.

In August of 1999, under UN supervision, an overwhelming majority of Timorese, 78 percent, spoke loud and clear in favor of self-governance and the right to determine their own future.

Indonesian assurances to provide security in the independence referendum were unmet. Militias loyal to Indonesia destroyed Timorese infrastructure, razed homes, and conducted random acts of violence and abuse. It’s estimated that 100 percent of the country’s electrical grid was rendered useless and 85 percent of buildings burned. In 2012, within a block of my hotel, I see the remaining evidence of this scorched earth policy.

An Australian-led peacekeeping force entered the country later in 1999 to end the violence and, ultimately, secure Timor-Leste independence. The upcoming parliamentary vote is the country’s third round of elections since 2002 when it became the first new nation of the 21st Century.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) is observing the voting process in each of Timor-Leste’s 13 districts. IRI was the first non-governmental organization to work in Timor-Leste with political parties, beginning in 2000.

IRI delegation leader Frank Wisner noted that Timor-Leste is “a country absolutely determined to create its own democratic traditions.”

A new parliament will face a wave of challenges — high unemployment, inadequate roads, and a lack of economic diversity, among many others. By all accounts, Timorese are committed to tackling these problems and fulfilling their country’s hopes and dreams at the ballot box.

Brian C. Keeter is a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7 parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.

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