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Weekly Insights and Analysis

Is Timor-Leste Ready for an Issues-Based Election?

March 29, 2017

By Hugo Fernandes, Todd Wassel

On March 20, the people of Timor-Leste cast their vote for a new president—the fourth time since 2002 and the first without a UN peacekeeping presence—with former independence leader and Fretilin party head, Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres, securing 57 percent of the votes.

Timor elections

Then president Taur Matan Ruak shows his ballot as he prepares to vote for the new president on March 20. Photo/Acacio Pinto/TP

While the president in Timor-Leste has veto power over legislation, the role is largely symbolic. In some ways, the election was more of the same: consensus politics—with the two former opposition parties, CNRT and Fretilin, backing the same candidate—was demonstrated in full force. Meanwhile, support for candidates from the “old generation,” made up of former revolutionary leaders, once again dominated over support for the “new generation” for president.

Timor elections

Fretilin party supporters show their support on election day. Photo/Antoninho Bernadino

However, buried beneath the news headlines something else was taking place. Three days before the election, televisions lit up across the country as families gathered to watch the country’s first-ever presidential debate live on the government-sponsored news channel TVTL.

Eight candidates took the stage to debate a broad range of topics, including protection of state sovereignty, justice, the independency of judicial institutions and actors, the government’s role in reducing unemployment, the development of a non-oil economy, and foreign policy challenges like maritime boundaries and ASEAN ascension.

While the topics themselves were not surprising, the fact that candidates were compelled to argue their position to the public for the first time raises the question as to whether the country is shifting from a personality-based politics to one of issues and substance. What does the debate say about citizens demanding answers to the challenges facing this small half-island nation? A look at the dramatic shift in demographics can shed light on this.

Timor-Leste presidential debate

Candidates participate in Timor-Leste’s first-ever presidential debate. Photo/Acacio Pinto/TP

Today, two-thirds of Timor-Leste’s population is under the age of 30. Between 2012 and 2017, over 120,000 new people registered to vote. Some argue this new bloc of young voters represents a potential opportunity for new policy ideas and approaches to solving some of the country’s challenges. However, it also poses a new challenge for current politicians since some of these voters were not even alive during the 1999 referendum, let alone the Indonesian occupation. The traditional appeal of resistance credentials may not resonate among these younger voters as much as issue-oriented policy solutions.

At the same time, connectivity across the country is increasing at a rapid pace, with more people saying they get their news from television rather than traditional media. Social media is also increasingly reaching further into the countryside. In the 2012 election, the internet was not even a factor, as only 1 percent of the population had access. Since then, the number of Facebook users (the primary social media channel in Timor-Leste) has skyrocket from 6 percent of the population in 2014 to 28 percent in 2016. The 18-34-year-old demographic accounts for nearly all of this growth, representing 71 percent of all users.

Social media played a role for the first time in this campaign. Most of the presidential candidates created their own Facebook pages to share their views on issues, campaign schedules, pictures and videos from the campaign trail, and to provide the opportunity for the public to discuss and debate the issues. Just five years ago, since there were no cheap internet options, the big innovation was the use of SMS groups to organize campaign rallies.

But the same connectivity that has the potential to reach the electorate might have played some role in discouraging some people from voting. Turnout in this election was actually down compared to 2012, at 69 and 78 percent, respectively. Is the drop a result of consensus politics and the feeling that the vote was a foregone conclusion? Was it because people did not connect to the messages being touted, or connect their struggles to the larger challenges discussed during the debate? Was it the increased youth population who registered but in the end decided not to vote?

As oil reserves decline, the next government may be the last to enjoy the budgetary windfalls that this has afforded. As Timor-Leste approaches elections for the unicameral parliament and its prime minister in July, addressing the core issues of state revenue, education, unemployment, and security can no longer be put on the back burner. Will the electorate demand answers to these challenges now that these avenues of communication have opened up? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: this election cycle matters.

Hugo Fernandes is The Asia Foundation’s director for Policy & Institutional Strengthening in Timor-Leste, and Todd Wassel is the Foundation’s deputy country representative there. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.

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