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Decentralization in Timor-Leste: What’s at Stake?

June 24, 2009

It’s a sunny day and the wind is blowing in off the sea from the port in Dili. Behind the government palace, the white, octagon-shaped parliament building shines in the hot, tropical sun. Outside the parliament – a few pick-up trucks, then a taxi, drives by some sauntering pedestrians.

In front of the Parliament stands Senor Jose Barreto amid a group of university students smoking cigarettes, one of whom is text messages on his phone. Senor Barreto is Chief of Lauhata Suco. Suco is a term that describes a traditional administrative unit of governance and is often translated into English as “village.” In practice, however, Suco means more than that: it is an administrative unit that has been the main local governing structure for the majority of East Timorese for at least five centuries.

While Timor-Leste, newly-independent, rebuilds itself, state services are still far from the reach of many. Chiefs of Suco, like Senor Barreto, find themselves organizing road maintenance, planning for water and irrigation, enforcing local rules on use of common land, including forests, and settling local disputes that depend on their good counsel. Yet Senor Barreto’s activities are not planned or resourced through the state budget. Because there is no decentralized budget and planning authority, Senor Barreto must appeal to ministry officials in the country’s capital, Dili, for his Suco‘s resources.

Senor Barreto has come to Parliament for a public hearing on a set of laws that could change all that. In early March, the Council of Ministers of Timor-Leste approved four draft laws on decentralization. However, the draft laws themselves fall short of the kind of decentralization that Senor Barreto had hoped for.

The draft laws call for a strong central government with nominal powers for local government and give the central government control over everything the local government does, including the legislative assembly. And the central government proposes to retain the power to review all the legislative assembly’s decisions.

Perhaps worse, the draft laws have no provisions for Suco representation in the local government. This means that Senor Barreto would not be able to address the concerns of his constituency in Timor-Leste’s national budgeting and planning process.

The government’s ruling coalition had every reason to expect quick passage of the draft laws on local government: they hold the majority in parliament and, as September’s local elections loom closer, pressure is mounting on the legislature. Parties within the ruling coalition pushed for a one day public consultation to cover a total of 84 pages of legal text in Portuguese. But public consultations are always a challenge, even moreso in a place where almost half the population has not finished any formal schooling and less than seven percent of the public speak Portuguese.

Timor-Leste’s independence has given Senor Barreto and the country’s citizens a glimmer of hope. According to the nation’s new Constitution, bills — such as the laws on decentralization – require approval from the National Parliament before becoming law. The Constitution also states “on matters of territorial organization, the State shall respect the principle of decentralization of public administration.”

However, Timor-Leste, like many new democracies in Asia and around the globe, is constrained by the lack of knowledge, independence, and power in the legislature to judiciously provide the checks and balances on the government to adhere to the Constitution.

Senor Barreto – with more than a hundred other Chefe de Sucos and scores of civil society representatives – attended the public consultations on the bills. The public seating in the plenary hall of the parliament was packed. In total, almost 400 Suco officials and civil society representatives attended the three sets of public consultations, the largest turnout for any such public hearing in Timor-Leste to date.

Adino Cabral of Lao Hamutuk, a Timorese non-governmental organization (NGO), spoke about how unclear the draft laws were on the purpose and functions of the proposed local government and lamented the weakness of its legislative assemblies to the point of calling these “Tukan Stempel” (“stamp pads”).

Dinorah Granadeiro of Fongtil, Timor-Leste’s umbrella organization for NGOs, insisted on greater and stronger women representation in the draft law.

For the Chefe de Suco in Baucau District, it was his first time to be invited to such an event. He stood and just thanked the Parliament for allowing him to participate.

While the public consultations’ long-term impact on decentralization is unknown, the immediate impact is certain: the ruling coalition has agreed that more time is needed for sufficient deliberation of the draft laws.

As for Senor Barreto, he is watching the government and the draft law to see if his voiced opinions will be incorporated into the final drafts. “A lot is riding on this,” he said. “It’s a matter of whether the people will rule the state or whether the state will rule the people.”

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste and Butch Ragragio is Chief of Party for the USAID-funded local governance, elections, and civil society project. They can be reached at severett@asiafound.org and bragragio@asiafound.org, respectively.

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