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Timor-Leste’s Parliamentary Elections 2017

I visited Timor-Leste twice during the late years of Indonesian occupation, in both 1995 and 1998, witnessing the omnipresent oppression back then, ultimately making Timor-Leste a part of my life. In 1999, I observed the referendum, still recalling the helplessness of September 6, 1999, being evacuated from Dili to Darwin by the Royal Australian Air-Force, while Dili and most other parts of Timore-Leste where turned into scorched earth by the Indonesian Military and its militia groups.

At the same time, I recall the hope and pride of Timor-Leste’s people during the years of resistance and in subsequent years, under UN-Transition (UNTAET), leading to Independence on May 20, 2002. During those years of transition, I worked as a United Nations Volunteer District Electoral Officer on the 2001 Constituent Assembly Elections, and as a EU-Long Term Observer for the 2002 Presidential Elections. I returned to Timor-Leste during the bloody 2006 FDTL / PNTL crisis and also observed the fierce 2007 elections.* During the last decade, I have come back on various other occasions. I am in Timor-Leste again now, as an IRI long term observer for the 2017 Parliamentary Elections, 22 years after my first encounter with Timor-Timur, as it was called back in the Indonesian days, and 18 years after observing the historical 1999 plebiscite. Compared to the years mentioned prior, this year’s Parliamentary Election campaigning is the most orderly, peaceful and disciplined.

Falintil Anniversary in Aileu, August 2000

Twenty-one parties are contesting for sixty-five parliamentary seats in the in national elections on 22 July, when voters have to decide who governs Timor-Leste during the next 5 years. For now, the established leadership, mostly still consisting of long term resistance leaders playing major roles in the years of resistance and after independence, seem to be able to continue their political calculus and form a coalition among leading parties, Fretilin and CNRT. But in a population with a median age of just under nineteen years, and a voting age of seventeen, a fifth of Timor-Leste’s 750,000 registered voters will be participating in the elections for the first time, not recalling the years of Indonesian occupation, the struggle for independence, nor necessarily the political crisis of 2006 / 2007 - making it difficult to predict the exact composition of the new parliament, and the complexion of the government.

Constituent Assembly Elections

 According to the Southeast Asia Economist's 2016 Democracy Index, Timor-Leste has been ranked as the most democratic country in Southeast-Asia. While the 2017 Parliamentary elections will most likely not result in major changes in the political landscape, 5 or 10 years down the road, observers might witness a new generation of future leaders to take over from the ‘Veteran Generation.’

*Editor’s note: Starting with a petition by soldiers from Timor’s army F-FDTL in January 2006, protests extended in March when 594 petitioners were dismissed from the army. A rebel group of soldiers led by Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha was later joined by Major Alfredo Reinado as the crisis erupted into armed violence in April-May. Initial joint operations by Timor’s army (F-FDTL) and police (PNTL) soon descended into armed clashes between the police, army, rebel soldiers and urban youth, with over 100 people being killed in 2006.