The Next Challenges for Timor-Leste
Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog
By Brian C. Keeter 

With parliamentary and presidential elections in the rear-view mirror, attention turns to the road ahead. Timor-Leste faces too many challenges to list here but following are a few of the most salient confronting the new parliament and prime minister.

Land reform: The country’s economic obstacles are practically innumerable, but nothing is as fundamental to long-term development as reforming land ownership laws. Simply put, without reform, a free-market, voluntary exchange economy cannot take hold, an entrepreneurial class will not emerge, private sector wealth creation stands no chance, and Timorese won’t see greater availability of affordable goods, products and services.

The current antiquated system is a throw-back to colonial times. By keeping real estate in a proverbial no-man’s land, it’s removed from the people who can put it to productive use for the benefit of themselves and society. Failure of the previous government to restore private property rights is one of the biggest disappointments in 10 years of independence. The new parliament and prime minister have the opportunity to correct a mistake that, left unchecked, will keep Timorese dependent on government (domestic or foreign) aid, impoverished or both.

Delivery on party platforms: Just after polls opened in Maubisse, an elderly couple talked about their frustration over broken campaign promises. I heard more of the same throughout the day. At 74 percent in the parliamentary election and 78 percent in the presidential, turnout is high. But it will quickly wane if Timorese don’t see a correlation between platforms of the winners and changes, even if only incremental, on the ground.

Timor-Leste’s challenges are obviously large and across-the-board. For the political parties and elected officials, it raises two questions. Can they resist the temptation to over promise on goals they can’t reasonably achieve? And can they make short-term gains to give voters confidence that the electoral process produces accountability in the elected?

Democratic consolidation: Older voters who lived through colonization, invasion and occupation were forthright in talking about their right and duty to vote. Young people also turned out in large numbers amid signs that democratic traditions are taking root in younger generations. But disillusionment can emerge quickly. Corruption allegations surrounding the energy fund or growth of a glaring income gap like that seen in some Latin countries, among other issues, hold great potential to reverse confidence in representative government and the process that produces it. Consolidating democratic gains is crucial the next few years.

Managing the UN exit: Barring unforeseen circumstances, the UN mission is winding down. The UN exit, expected by the end of 2012, means the loss of jobs and aid dollars. Looming just as large is transfer of responsibility for security and stability to the new government.

Brian C. Keeter was a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and is providing a series of posts about the July 7th 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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