Timor-Leste plans to mark an anniversary at the polls

In its 20th year of self-rule, the island nation is scheduled to vote in a presidential election offering old hands and the largest candidate field since a revolution brought sovereignty

March 18, 2022
Timor-Leste plans to mark an anniversary at the polls
Fretilin party supporters attend a campaign rally in Dili, Timor-Leste, on 16 March 2022 for President Francisco Guterres, who is up for reelection in polling scheduled for 19 March. Photo: Valentino Dariel Sousa/AFP

An election is always a matter of great importance to a nation’s inhabitants, but the exercise of democracy can carry greater symbolic significance when polling also marks the anniversary of a recent and hard-fought independence.

This is a rare occurrence in the 21st century, when the global geopolitical map is largely set, with some glaring exceptions. But for the 1.3 million residents of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, this unique opportunity will be possible on 19 March when the country is scheduled to cast ballots in a presidential election 20 years after regaining its national sovereignty.

An election in Timor-Leste free of outside interference is notable not only as a vital function of government, but because the diminutive nation did not have the opportunity for many years. Timor-Leste’s ‘re-independence’ began in 2002, after ruling itself for less than a fortnight in 1975 between Portugal’s departure and Indonesia’s invasion.

The position of Timor-Leste president is not symbolic, carrying powers including appointing and dissolving parliament following elections, issuing pardons and vetoing legislation. Yet the prime minister oversees the operations of the government. 

The March election was called by President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, who is seeking a return to the office he has held since May 2017. The 67-year-old became the nation’s sixth president after failed bids in 2007 and 2012 and service as head of the nation’s parliament from 2002 to 2007.

The party supporting Guterres, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, abbreviated to ‘Fretilin’ from the Portuguese Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, began as a resistance group that eventually formed the country’s first governing party after gaining sovereignty.

Guterres formerly enjoyed the backing of the National Congress of the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CRNT) party, which now supports a prominent election rival, Jose Ramos-Horta.

Ramos-Horta, 72, is the nation’s former prime minister (2006-2007) and president (2007-2012) with international name recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his years of international diplomacy and lobbying for Timor-Leste’s independence.

Deakin University Professor Damien Kingsbury, a Timor-Leste expert, told Reuters that Ramos-Horta is “very much the outside candidate” in the election without the support of other main political parties beyond CRNT. 

The field of 16 presidential candidates ratified by the government on 17 February is the largest to date. Previously, the largest candidate pool was the 12 candidates who sought the office in 2012, according to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, which reported the four female candidates on the ballot also constitute a new record. They include Deputy Prime Minister Armanda Berta do Santos, Labour Party President Angela Freitas, former UN Representative Milena Pires and Isabel Ferreira, who is married to current Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak.

A second round of balloting will be held on 19 April if a single candidate fails to gain 50% of the March vote. The victor will take office on 20 May, the official date marking 20 years since the restoration of independence.

People receive 2022 calendars showing a portrait of Milena Pires, candidate for Timor-Leste’s upcoming presidential election, during a campaign event in Ermera, on 2 March, 2022. Photo: Valentino Dariel Sousa/AFP

The island of Timor is located about 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) north of Australia and remains divided between two nations: Timor-Leste, also commonly known as East Timor, leste being the Portuguese word for ‘east,’ and West Timor, which remains part of Indonesia’s southernmost province, East Nusa Tenggara.

There are nearly 3,200 kilometres (1,988 miles) between Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, and Jakarta, which took control of East Timor nine days after the country declared its independence from Portugal in November 1975. The annexation via invasion and the declaration of Timor-Leste as an Indonesian province in July 1976 led to decades of fighting over the territory of 15,000 square kilometres (about 5,800 square miles).

Portuguese colonial rule had endured on and off since the mid-1500s. Portugal and the Netherlands split the island in an 1859 treaty and the Japanese occupied the eastern Portuguese Timor from 1942 to 1945, with Portugal resuming control after Japan’s defeat in World War II. The European country’s authority lasted until the collapse of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship in 1974. This opened the door to the 1975 independence declaration by Timor-Leste and Indonesia’s subsequent occupation.

In a referendum overseen by the UN in August 1999, Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia, but enforcement of the result and an end to fighting required the intervention of the International Force for East Timor led by Australia. International diplomatic recognition came in May 2002, although in 2006 Timor-Leste requested further intervention to end a coup attempt and violent public clashes.

Presidential candidate and former president Jose Ramos Horta campaigns in Ermera on 11 March, 2022. Photo: Valentino Dariel Sousa/AFP

Ramos-Horta, a minister of external relations and information for Fretilin when he was in his 20s, received the 1996 Nobel award after more than two decades as an exile lobbying support for Timor-Leste’s independence.

He spoke with Southeast Asia Globe in July 2021, describing the political situation in the country in 1975 and the invasion by Indonesia as “likely motivated by the post-Vietnam syndrome.”

“To think that Timor-Leste, which at the time had only about 600,000 people, would be another communist enclave, that is far-fetched by any stretch of imagination,” he said. “We were led by Catholic leaders, nothing to do with communism.”

Following a 24-year banishment, Ramos-Horta returned to Timor-Leste in December 1999 to celebrate the referendum vote in which 78.5% of voters rejected the option of holding special autonomy within Indonesia in favour of full independence. An estimated 10,000 people awaited him at the airport.

“I didn’t feel right that I was in a car and they were walking, so I got out of the car and walked with them,” he recalled 22 years later. “We walked all the way from the airport to the government building, it took us two hours.”

Australian filmmaker Sophie Barry worked in Timor-Leste during the latter part of the occupation, interviewing guerrilla leader and future Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in July 1998. 

Barry recounted the meeting for the Globe, explaining there were more than 400 people at the remote location with the leader of Falantil, the armed faction of Fretilin, which at the time was an independence movement and not yet a political party.

A new or re-elected president in any country, even one with a strong parliamentary system, is certain to face struggles. 

“[Taur Matan Ruak] was very friendly, kind and composed, yet he had a serious look that seemed to command respect from his soldiers,” she said. “He understood our reason for being there and appreciated the journey we had made to interview him and tell part of the Falantil resistance story.”

Barry returned the following year with her sister, fellow filmmaker Lyndal Barry. The pair were among the journalists who helped bring international attention to the ongoing fight for Timor-Leste’s independence in the late 1990s.

“From day one, when we first arrived in East Timor it was pretty violent. Within about an hour of being there, we had a gun at our heads by a militia guy,” Lyndal Barry recalled in the interview the Globe conducted with the sisters in July 2021. “At that point the [Indonesian] militias were kind of crazy and they were jumped up on amphetamines and I think it was just to terrorise journalists more.”

The harassment of journalists was real, including pictures drawn on a wall by Indonesian soldiers depicting shooting, hanging and rape, they said.

The threats also were real. The sisters were among the first people to arrive following the discovery of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes after he was shot and mutilated by Indonesian forces in Dili in September 1999.

“The way I recognised him was we had bought the same cargo pants the day before,” Lyndal Barry said.

While the struggle for national sovereignty is over, Timor-Leste continues to encounter difficulties. Like most other countries, Covid-19 has delivered unique challenges.

Ramos-Horta issued a public apology in March 2020 after Timor-Leste’s national police commissioner, Faustino da Costa, claimed the World Health Organisation (WHO) was “not helping” the island country fight the virus. Ramos-Horta said some people had forgotten the support for independence the country received from the UN, the parent organisation of the WHO.

A new or re-elected president in any country, even one with a strong parliamentary system, is certain to face struggles. 

Michael Leach, a politics and international relations professor and expert on Timor-Leste at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, explained the biggest difficulties for the incoming president “will be bridging the major parties together to meet national development challenges and overcoming some of the increasingly bitter inter-party divisions.”

“The most pressing problems beyond the election are the ever-present challenge of diversifying the economy beyond the era of the sovereign wealth fund, which has perhaps 15 years of annual budgets left in it,” Leach said, “decentralising the economy so that more people stay in the districts and find education and employment opportunities there and future-proofing the capital, Dili, against the sort of devastating floods witnessed last year.”

While the issues before the nation and the next occupant of the president’s office are significant, the election will stand as an occasion for Timor-Leste to commemorate two decades of meeting its challenges free from the shadow of foreign control.

Additional research by Anton L. Delgado.

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