The Role of Veterans in The Upcoming Elections

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Veteranus iha Timor-Leste

Fundasaun Mahein, 23 January 2011

With the presidential elections around the corner and the parliamentary elections not far behind, our attention turns to what role veterans should play in these? The veteran issue in Timor-Leste is a very controversial one and we were once again reminded of this recently, when a group of veterans threatened to boycott the presidential elections because of their dissatisfaction with regards to their status and entitlements.

The veteran issue is a continual thorn in the politics and development of this young democracy and Fundasaun Mahein’s main continual concern is ensuring the stability and unity of this country. Therefore FM asks how can veterans play a role in which they provide political stability as opposed to aggravating political divisions? In other words, what does it take to avoid having veterans get dragged into becoming a source of national and political instability?

The constitution of the DRTL places significant status and esteem on veterans and their role in the liberation of Timor-Leste. Veterans are seen as state heritage and specific legislation is in place guaranteeing their elevated status and entitlements. A secretary of state for veterans was created to defend their interests however discontent remains widespread among some sections of veterans. This comes from the difficulties in officially recognising who is a veteran and from the unfulfilled aspirations some veterans held upon independence.

It would be tempting to call for veterans to unite around some sort of political consensus whereby they would stay neutral in political debates in the interest of national stability and unity. But this would be virtually impossible when most political parties are made up of a large number of veterans, and nearly all are led by resistance leaders and heroes.

Perhaps, instead we could allow veterans to participate in political debates but if they choose to engage in political life ask that they do so as a private citizen rather than a veteran. In other words, veterans would have to put away their veteran identity if they entered political life. However is it realistic to expect prospective voters to differentiate between a personality and their veteran identity. Isn’t a person’s identity intertwined with its past?

One concrete recommendation that could be made is to ask political parties to stop politicizing veterans. This could start by parties ceasing to present themselves as the party of veterans. Many political parties enjoy playing up their veteran credentials and claiming to be the ‘real’ party of the veterans. No one political party can represent the interests and concerns of such an assorted and diverse group of men and women. Claiming to do so simply leads to further worsening tensions among veterans.

Furthermore, political parties should be pushed by the media and by its supporters to talk more specifically about their veteran programs.
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What plans do they have for veterans if elected? Political parties need to be more upfront about such important issues. Additionally political parties should avoid using violent language while campaigning. Instead of violently attacking other political party programmes, party officials should concentrate on promoting and defending their own programmes. FM strong encourages positive campaigning and calls out to all parties to stay away from dirty political games and language to avoid deepening divisions among the people of Timor-Leste so that elections may run smoothly and peacefully. Political parties are largely responsible for the behaviour of its supporters. The people of Timor-Leste all seek the development of this country, and although we may not all agree on what the right path is to progress, people should be allowed to debate this peacefully through constructive criticism.
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This is the only way to advance the livelihoods of the people of this country.

In this short article, FM seeks to create a debate among the public on the role of veterans in the elections. However, FM would like to put forward one last idea on the role veterans could play in the running of Timor-Leste, a long shot idea, but one we feel merits some discussion.
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Numerous countries around the world have bicameral parliaments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. These are all well enshrined democracies that chose the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers. The idea behind most bicameral legislatures is to have a counter chamber to the directly elected chamber. This second chamber often called the senate, would be elected not by mass electors, but selected by the State legislators. The idea is that a senate would constitute a stabilizing force in which we could draw upon the wisdom of more experienced individuals. Critics believe bicameralism makes meaningful political reforms more difficult to achieve and increases the risk of gridlock (particularly in cases where both chambers have similar powers), while proponents argue the merits of the “checks and balances” provided by the bicameral model, which they believe help prevent the passage into law of ill-considered legislation.

In the case of Timor-Leste, why not have a second chamber, a senate, which would be made up of an elected selection of veterans. This upper house would focus on scrutinizing and possibly vetoing the decisions of the lower house. This would give veterans significant influence in the running and development of this country. This would reward their contribution in the liberation of this country, while the legislative process and the oversight of government could benefit from their experience and wisdom.

FM doesn’t suggest that this is the answer to all veteran issues nor that it may actually be suitable, however we would like to open up this debate as we see this as an interesting attempt at capturing veterans as veritable state assets and gaining from all they have to offer, while granting them a significant role in the running of our young state and institutions. For centuries have people from all parts of the world not looked to the more experienced for guidance and wisdom? This could be an opportunity for Timor-Leste to draw upon its wisest. (NB)

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