Timor-Leste is preparing for its fourth parliamentary and presidential elections in 2017, an important milestone as this is the first time the Timorese will be administering their national elections without significant support from the international community.

A few days ago I met with H.E. Mrs. Isabela da Costa Ferreira, the dynamic First Lady of Timor-Leste, who was cautiously optimistic about the future of her country. During our meeting she eloquently quoted and used as examples the founders of two diverse and very different nations, Mahatma Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew. The relevance of these two charismatic personalities seems far from the current reality of Timor-Leste, however as the small nation defines its future political path both seem quite relevant. Mrs. Da Costa, as she spoke of Gandhi, focused on his ideas of freedom and representation. When she spoke of Lee Kuan Yew, she focused on his ability to build a strong and vibrant economy. Both fathers of their nations, Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew took different paths toward establishing their nations: Gandhi was the founder of the world’s largest democracy and Yew the father of one of the most economically prosperous nations.

This is relevant for Timor-Leste as it defines its political and economic future. The current political matrix is centered on a governing coalition of the two largest political parties, CNRT and FRETILIN, and an opposition consisting of two smaller parties. As the country is investing its petroleum revenues on large-scale infrastructure projects, there seems to be little political debate on the development priorities of the country, especially with rising unemployment of a new and young urban class. As young Timorese try to find a better life, they look for opportunities in urban areas such as the capital Dili, however those opportunities are few and far between. Of growing concern is the high youth unemployment in the increasingly urbanized areas of the country — especially as a quarter of the electorate are first time voters, and most have little remembrance of the struggle for independence that many of the current political ideologies are based on.

Moving forward to next year’s national elections, the ultimate responsibility for establishing a stable and vibrant economy lies with the nation’s leadership to ensure a positive atmosphere and deliver tangible improvements in the country’s economy, infrastructure, and state institutions. IRI for its part will offer the political parties its experiences with strategic development, research, inclusion of women and youth within policy and political party structures, as well as issue-based platform development with the hope that a competitive democracy and transparent institutions will offer the Timorese a path to more economic development and prosperity. I hope that one day Mrs. Isabela da Costa Ferreira will be able to speak of Timor-Leste as an example of a prosperous nation that embodies Gandhi’s respect for civil rights and Lee Kuan Yew’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

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