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Looking Forward

The Future of Democracy in Timor-Leste

By Nikkola Mikocki-Bleeker
International Engagement Communications Coordinator
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Today, around 750,000 voters in Timor-Leste will go to the polls 15 years after the nation became a sovereign nation in 2002. It also marks the first time that Timorese people living in Australia (including those who fled Indonesian occupation) can vote for their president back home.

Many young people employed by and supporting Oaktree across Australia are ‘90s babies. This means that in our lifetime we have borne witness to the birth of Timor-Leste as a nation. So what does it mean for a country young enough to have gained independence within our collective memory to be going to the polls?

Timor-Leste is a young country, but is regarded as the most democratic country in SE Asia.

The Economist’s Democracy Index last year ranked Timor-Leste as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia based on five variables: electoral process and pluralism, government functioning, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. This shows great positivity for the present and future of Timorese democracy (yet it is important to note this as an inherently western measure).

The last three elections in Timor-Leste have also been widely judged free and fair. Yet complicating this is the fact that many people remain loyal to FRETILIN and the cluster of newer parties with resistance leaders at their helm. So while elections have technically been fair, it is common for the Timorese to vote for resistance heroes rather than voting based on policy, in a large part due to nostalgia of the not-so-distant fight for independence.

Some also argue Timor-Leste’s consensus politics, in the form of a coalition between FRETILIN and CNRT, runs the risk of weakening the country’s generally strong democracy.  


"Democracy will be tested in the upcoming months through general elections."


Timor-Leste moreover remains a young country with many threats to its stability. The violent political crisis of 2006 - which began with protesting security forces and reached a climax with the fall of the government - demonstrates that the situation in Timor-Leste can turn on a dime. A broader societal culture of violence (in educational environments as well as domestic) also has far-reaching ramifications. Children often miss out on schooling and around 70% have experienced abuse, while 1 in 3 women have been raped.

In this setting, our funded partner Ba Futuru works to improve schooling quality and attendance in a context of poor education outcomes. Spates of localised violence relating to the election have also already been reported, with warnings of run-off consequences into late April. These factors of violence and protest surrounding democracy in Timor-Leste are compounded by the danger of a worldwide rise of anti-democratic sentiment.

Phenomena like Trump, Brexit, One Nation, and the far right threat they represent, have been met by widespread social media outcry within Australia. But Oaktree believe that absent from this discourse is solidarity with people fighting for democracy just a stone’s throw away. In not only Timor-Leste, but three other countries in which we have peer partners - Papua New Guinea, India and Cambodia - democracy will be tested in the upcoming months through general elections.

In the context of a general disengagement of Australian young people with democracy, we believe that we can overcome apathy with a movement against anti-democracy - starting first of all with supporting Timor-Leste. Our partner Ba Futuru’s very name means for the future in the local language of Tetun. And on this day, we join our partners with solidarity in their calls for a better future, starting with free and fair elections of their next president.

Want to keep reading? Check out Being Bold for Change