Waiting for the New Chapter of Timor Leste

A young man sits stretched out on the dry grass in Aileu Square, Timor Leste, it was the afternoon when the Secretary General of the Fretilin Party Mari Alkatiri gave a speech from the podium on Thursday the 11th of May 2023. Wearing a white shirt and army green shirt, his figure stands out in contrast among the hundreds of people wearing red shirts while carrying the Fretilin flag. Nizu (20), is the name of the young man.

That day, Fretilin was conducting a political campaign ahead of the Parliamentary Elections, Sunday, 21 May 2023. The popular vote will be the fifth parliamentary election since Timor Leste’s independence in 2002. The previous four elections were held in 2007, 2012, 2017, and 2018. In the elections, the last parliamentary Fretilin have succeeded to win. However, the majority of parliament seats at that time were controlled by the party founded by Xanana Gusmao, the Conselho Nacional de Reconstução de Timor (CNRT) with the fusion of the AMP (Alliance for Change and Progress) coalition consisting of CNRT, PLP (People’s Liberation Party), and KHUNTO (Kmanek Haburas Unidade National Timor Oan ).

In Timor Leste, two political parties, namely Fretilin and CNRT, are parties which alternately dominate the parliament. But Nizu was not interested in choosing between the two. The youngest of 4 siblings admitted that he only took his mother, who was a Fretilin loyalist. Meanwhile, his father and one of his older brothers became sympathizers of CNRT. In the parliamentary vote this time, Nizu firmly voted for Partido Democratico, aka the Democratic Party (PD).

The Democratic Party was founded on the 10th of June 2001. Since the first parliamentary election held in 2007, PD had won the 3rd most votes. Its position was replaced by PLP in the 2017 Legislative Election. During that time, the number of parliamentary seats won by PD has never been more than 10 seats. This party had won 8 seats in 2 election periods. But in the last election, there is 2017, the PD’s seats fell slightly to only 7 seats. While the top position of the vote acquisition was dominated by Fretilin in first place with 23 seats, and CNRT with 21 seats after that.

Managed by young people who graduated from foreign universities, including Indonesia, Democratic Party has indeed attracted the interest of Timor Leste’s young people. President Ramos Horta, in an interview with Jaring.id  on Wednesday the 10th  of May 2023, admitted that he had supported PD. “I once campaigned for Democratic Party and gave direct support,” he said. This direct support includes funding. But of course that was done when Horta was not serving the position of President.

Nizu himself decided to vote for the Democratic Party because he was not comfortable with parties that kept talking about the past and were fighting for the most merit in the struggle for Timor Leste’s independence. “I want a party that clearly talks about programs for young people, about how to eradicate poverty, and create jobs,” said this third semester student at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL). UNTL is one of the leading campuses in Timor Leste.

Nizu was indeed born when Timor Leste was only three years old. He could not imagine what it was like to live during the war for independence, and how much blood was spilled, lives were lost, and the grief of loss during those times. However, poverty and employment are indeed his concerns, including those of other ages.

According to UNDP data, 42 percent of the total population of Timor Leste, which currently reaches 1.3 million people, live below the poverty line. Unemployment is high, and job opportunities in the formal sector are limited. Meanwhile, jobs created by the private sector are also low due to the lack of demand. Most of the population does not have a steady income, and many of them are subsistence farmers. This has made many East Timorese young people go abroad, including to Australia, New Zealand, and the UK to work in the informal sector. There are those who work in factories, there are also those who work as fruit pickers.

Mari Alkatiri claimed to Jaring.id  that Fretilin would provide jobs. “I have promised the people what Fretilin will do. We will provide better quality education, increase welfare, and prepare employment opportunities. Employment opportunities here, instead of sending them to become laborers abroad,” he said.

Mari Alkatiri. Photo: Jaring.id
General Secretary of the Fretilin Party Mari Alkatiri. Foto: Jaring.id

A similar statement was conveyed by a high-ranking member of the Fretilin Party for Political Cadreization, Efrem Dos Anjos, who was met separately. “We have to create something in Timor Leste. Encouraging jobs in the private sector in order to create jobs, he said. Fretilin, according to Efrem, will also provide business credit for young people so they can create jobs.

Even so, to gain votes, Fretilin still used the narrative of independence, and the struggle with veterans, and played up sentiments as the first party to call for resistance to Indonesian colonialism. That narrative continues to be echoed throughout the campaign.

Fretilin also used volunteers and the youth movement. Efrem said, facing this year’s legislative election, Fretilin mobilized the Fretilin youth organization to go door to door in villages to campaign for their program. Efrem claims that they are also the only party that offers voters a social contract.

Fretilin is optimistic that they will win the election. “It is impossible to get an absolute vote, but we are sure to win 30 seats,” Alkatiri said. Prior to the campaign being held, Fretilin had signed a coalition agreement with PLP and KHUNTO which had previously formed a coalition with CNRT. Acquiring of seats from the three political parties has a great chance to make Fretilin outperform CNRT.

However, a pre-election survey conducted by the Matadalan Survey and Research Institute (M-SRI)—a research institute in Dili, assisted by the Kompas Research and Development, showed that Fretilin’s electability was far below that of the CNRT. CNRT was lead the poll with 49 percent, while Fretilin was only 25 percent. Meanwhile, none of the other parties exceeded 6 percent.

Sementara survei pra-pemilu tentang tokoh yang paling diharapkan menjadi perdana menteri, mayoritas (60,25 persen) menginginkan Ketua Umum CNRT Xanana Gusmao. Sedangkan posisi kedua ditempati Mari Alkatiri dengan 19 persen dan Taur Matan Ruak—saat ini menjabat sebagai PM—dengan 6,25 persen suara. “Saya tidak percaya survei apapun. Survei yang saya lakukan langsung ke grassroot,” ujar Alkatiri.


Compete In The Campaign Program

But the belief in winning the election also belongs to the CNRT. CNRT Party official Tomas Cabral is optimistic that his party will win 33 seats. Cabral said that the existing CNRT structure in 2,225 villages, and 442 villages in 13 districts in Timor Leste would be an effective party machine to gain votes. “This is because people know that since 2017 until now, many national programs have not been implemented. There is a shortage of medicine, and also food, electricity is dying, the infrastructure is not working,” said Cabral when met on the sidelines of the CNRT political rally at Liquica Square, District of Liquica, Timor Leste, Monday the 8th  of May 2023.

The figure of Xanana, according to Cabral, is also still a strong magnet for CNRT’s votes. “The people know who will lead the best way,” he said. Xanana is also expected to topple the seat of prime minister if the CNRT wins the election. ”Being prime minister, one must be able to master the material and dare to take risks in government programs. Here, there is a special court that verifies state finances, and there is an attorney general’s office. If the officials are not strong, they will be afraid. Xanana will stand at the forefront to defend the policies that the new officials take,” he said.

Timor Leste’s target to become a full member of ASEAN this year, according to Cabral, is also one of the reasons for the CNRT to push over Xanana’s pass to occupy the prime minister’s seat.

On the Liquica square that day, thousands of CNRT cadres and sympathizers hailed Xanana, who was the star of the campaign, on the podium. The crowd lasted as long as Xanana was on the podium from 3.30 pm to 6.30 pm local time.

Met apart, the CNRT official Dinaroh said his party would focus on education and health service issues. Every year, according to him, the budget for education and health is less than 10 percent. “We hope that the new government that will be elected later will strive on a budget above 10 percent, if possible it will even reach 15 percent,” he said.

CNRT, according to Dinaroh, also carried out programs for people with disabilities and subsidies for pregnant women. Especially for the subsidies to pregnant women, He assesses the Ministry of Social Affairs has been running well at this time.

As for employment, Dinaroh admits that Timor Leste has succeeded in creating jobs for high school graduates, who number in the thousands each year. “The current government’s program is to cooperate with other countries that create jobs. Young people are enthusiastic about participating, but the impact is not good internally because many young people are working abroad,” he explained. This causes Timor Leste to have a shortage of educated personnel.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, which is close competing with the PLP in obtaining seats in parliament, has promised to roll out a national strategic program that includes infrastructure development, agriculture, tourism, and human resource development.

The head of the Democratic Party’s Foreign Relations and Cooperation Department, Francisco Maukura, said that the Democratic Party would create a training center to create a trained Timorese workforce. Apart from that, the focus of the Democratic Party is also on the blue economy sector by exploiting the potential of Timor Leste’s sea. “The government doesn’t care about it. In fact, to overcome unemployment, inevitably the government should have to involve the private sector. They can create job opportunities. If there are no business opportunities, how can there be job opportunities,” he said.

The Democrat Party satirized the Fretilin government for not being able to solve the country’s problems. One of the things that Makura mentioned was the unresolved passport problem. Timor Leste is currently experiencing a passport crisis. Every time a Timorese person wants to print or renew a passport, they are only given a statement letter to replace the passport.

The problem is, only Indonesia and a number of countries in Asia are still accepting it. While in the European region, it is certain that they will not be able to accept the arrival of the Timor Leste people. “Just passport issue alone cannot be resolved, let alone other problems,” said Makaru, who during the interview sat at the same table with Efrem Dos Anjos from the Fretilin Party. Makaru doubted that the program offered by Fretilin could answer the problems of education, health, and employment.

However, Fretilin denied the allegation of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Fretilin also alluded to the incompetence of the Democratic Party in carrying out the program. This happened because the Democrat Party has never won a parliamentary election. Only 5 seats were won by the Democratic Party in 2018. According to Efrem, this indicates that the Democratic Party will not be able to carry out its programs and promises to the people of Timor Leste. “We are better because the Democratic Party has never won,” Efrem sarcasm.

Apart from Fretilin, CNRT, and Democratic Party, there are 14 other political parties competing in this year’s legislative election. Among them are PLP, KHUNTO, Partido Socialista de Timor (PST), and Partido Os Verdes de Timor (PVT), or what is called the Green Party. The Green Party is a newcomer party that has passed this year’s election.


Running Safely

Even though feuds or mutual criticism spread among the cadres of the competing political parties, both directly and during the campaign, until the D-day of the election, there was no political violence. At least that is as far as the observations made by the Timor Leste election organizers, the Comissão Nacional de Eleições (CNE). “Everything is still running according to regulations. There is no party that hinders other parties,” said CNE Commissioner Odete Maria Belo on Wednesday the 11th  of  May 2023.

Even so, Maria Belo acknowledged that during the campaign, there was always mutual blasphemy among political parties. His party can only appeal to campaigners for political parties not to use language that is blasphemous or vilifying other parties. But on the ground, things like that still happen.

During the CNRT campaign in Liquica Square on Monday the 8th  of May 2023, for example, campaigners also made satire against Fretilin. The campaign was even interspersed with an acceptance ceremony for village leaders who were formerly Fretilin cadres but have now decided to join the CNRT. One of them was even wore a Fretilin shirt, then on the podium, he took off the shirt and with the help of Xanana put on the CNRT shirt and flag. The scene of Xanana hugging and kissing the old people enchanted the crowd.

However, apart from the mutual sarcasm or criticism of political party cadres, according to Maria Belo, so far there have only been seven cases officially reported to CNE. “There are cases of lowering the flags of other parties and giving money to residents. The case is being handled by the State Attorney’s Office,” She said.

According to Maria Belo, all reports submitted to CNE will be verified in advance, which ones are included in election crimes and which are in the category of common crimes (public crimes). “If you beat them up, they are considered a public crime. For election crime, you can see it is related to the holding of elections,” She explained.

One of CNE’s findings is the use of state facilities, namely the use of official vehicles for campaigns by political parties. Another thing is the involvement of children. When asked by CNE, parents who took their children to the campaign site denied that they wanted to hear about the party’s program, but there was no one to look after the children. However, according to Maria Belo, there are those who are deliberately mobilized by the party. This includes the CNRT, Fretilin, KHUNTO, PVP, and Democratic Party. “They gave flags, and shirts, and painted the names of the parties on the bodies of the children,” She said.

But of all the competing parties, Fretilin and CNRT were the ones who violated the election the most. “Small parties mostly went door to door to houses so there were a few. While the big campaign parties are open and mobilized people to engaged about the campaign parties,” said Maria Belo.

Even so, compared to the previous legislative election, said Maria, this year’s election took place in a more orderly and safe manner. This election is the fifth parliamentary election since Timor Leste was recognized as an independent country by the United Nations in 2002. Whether the results of this year’s legislative elections will bring about a new chapter for Timor Leste, only the people of East Timor can answer that. However, it seems that the dominance of the CNRT and Fretilin will last for quite a long enough.

Overseas Voters’ Turnout Shrink

Binti Rosidah is one of more than 1.6 million Indonesians living and working in Malaysia. She has been working as a domestic worker in Kuala

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