As we all know, Timor-Leste faces complex challenges to improving our state capacity, human resources, physical infrastructure and economic sustainability. Many factors have limited the success of state programs, including corruption, poor planning, inexperience and a lack of political will. Another major problem is what we call the politicization of public administration, or the subordination of state institutions to personal and party interests. This blog article offers Fundasaun Mahein’s analysis of this issue, along with some suggestions on how to address the problem.
Since independence, a key factor determining success in Timorese politics has been the mobilisation of public support through political party campaigns which focus on the leaders’ role during the resistance struggle, while at the same time ensuring continued patrimonial payments and backroom deals. To achieve this, political parties have mostly recruited and promoted people with resistance connections and ‘mass power’ – the power to mobilise large numbers of people – while excluding many highly educated Timorese and intellectuals who lack such power and connections. Consequently, political campaigns rarely contain detailed discussions of programs which can address the fundamental problems facing the country. Instead, they mostly focus on candidates’ personal histories and characteristics, while using emotional arguments and demagoguery to attack the ‘other team’.
Previously, Fundasaun Mahein asked Timor-Leste’s leaders to work together to overcome their personal disagreements and allow the country to move forward. We argued that chronic political deadlocks due to elite in-fighting and party interests have hindered the improvement of the state’s capacity, economic development and our people’s wellbeing, while the failure of Maun Bo’ot sira to achieve meaningful progress in many key areas or prepare to hand power to the younger generation of ‘technocratic’ leaders risks provoking further political, social and economic crisis.
Compounding these failures, many Timorese people perceive that state policies are often designed to maximise the financial benefits and power for policy makers and their most powerful constituencies, rather than investing in productive economic activities, basic infrastructure, institutional capacity and public services. The Government and Parliament have enabled “legalised corruption” by adopting controversial policies such as Pensaun Vitalísia, subsidies for Presidential candidates and creating institutions to share jobs and benefits with political allies. In addition to limiting Timor-Leste’s development and generating public anger, such actions promote an image of public office as simply a mechanism for accessing privileges, rather than for serving the Timorese people. The visible corruption at the top also legitimises petty corruption at lower levels of government, which further limits ordinary people’s access to state benefits and services.
According to Timor-Leste’s Constitution, education is a fundamental right of all citizens. However, in Timor-Leste today education seems to be treated more as a privilege. This can be seen in the way that elites send their children to private schools operating for a profit and universities abroad, while Timor-Leste’s public education system receives little investment, resulting in low quality education for the majority of Timorese citizens. In addition, state institutions do not seem to value education or competency compared with resistance history. As a result, Government appointments and contracts are often awarded based on personal connections and resistance experience rather than on competence, while highly qualified Timorese and those receiving quality education abroad are mainly given ‘implementing’ roles and excluded from most decision making.
While there are several reasons for this, including a lack of a clear National Education Policy and strategy, Fundasaun Mahein believes that a major factor is that the older resistance leaders see young, highly educated Timorese as a threat to their power and privileges. As a result, they are afraid to hand over too much control to the younger generation of technocratic leaders or ensure that all Timorese people can access high quality education. Historically, elites have often limited citizens’ access to high quality education to protect their own power, and it seems like Timor-Leste is no exception to this.
The politicization of public administration to protect powerful interests is also preventing the development of alternative economic sectors which can replace the money Timor-Leste has earned from exporting oil and gas, as plans and contracts are mostly oriented towards benefiting politically connected groups rather than productive investments, while many of the most qualified Timorese are excluded from decision making. While our Petroleum Fund can finance the government for several years to come, the money will not last long without alternative revenue sources. Timor-Leste’s leaders need to take urgent action to address the issues of financial sustainability and the state’s dependency on the Petroleum Fund. However, today’s politicians seem unconcerned about future sustainability, so it is unclear how the necessary actions will happen without a major change of attitude among the leadership of Timor-Leste’s major parties.
The recent floods further revealed the state’s lack of capacity to respond to the people’s basic needs. Some politicians took advantage of the disaster to present themselves as friends of the people, while others blamed KHUNTO for not doing enough to provide relief through the Ministry of Social Solidary and Inclusion. In truth, the state’s lack of preparedness and capacity to deliver aid and repair infrastructure is mostly explained by the long-term problems of politicization and corruption within the public administration. These problems have also created many delays in approving and completing projects, further limiting the development of our infrastructure while increasing our vulnerability to natural disasters.
Political leaders often accuse martial arts groups or new parties of creating problems or seeking power for corrupt motivations, but this hides their own responsibility for failing to create the conditions for national prosperity and stability through compromise and wise policies. KHUNTO’s rise is directly linked with the widespread dissatisfaction people feel regarding the failure to invest adequately in developing the productive economy, improving infrastructure and services, and preventing corruption and clientelism. The continuous diversion of public money to powerful interests and connected people is causing large numbers of Timorese people to lose faith in the previous generation and established parties, and to search for new leaders who can represent their interests.
It is understandable that the older resistance leaders use their office to maintain their own power, especially since they believe that they have a right to run the country for which they sacrificed so much. Their political survival also depends on maintaining the loyalty of party cadres and patronage networks which ensure voter support, and they believe that handing over control to others who do not command the same loyalty may result in election failure and thus prevent any political goals from being achieved. However, they also need to recognise that their failure to reach a consensus, prevent corruption and ensure the peaceful transition of power to the younger generation is a major barrier to achieving equitable development and consolidating Timor-Leste’s state institutions. This poses a serious threat to our nation’s security and the wellbeing of all Timorese people, while providing opportunities to other political forces to take advantage of public dissatisfaction for their own benefit.
Around Dili and other parts of the country where elites live, big houses with high walls around them are being built, while rich people are investing heavily in private security. Fundasaun Mahein wonders if this is a sign that the elite are preparing for economic crisis and increased social conflict. We therefore ask our resistance leaders: is this the legacy you want to leave behind for the young generation, a legacy of failed development, social inequality and conflict? After sacrificing so much for Timor-Leste’s independence, it would be a tragic irony if the resistance heroes created the conditions for the country’s destruction due to their own greed, ego and lack of vision.
Fundasaun Mahein recognises that resolving these complex political problems is not easy. However, the situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and Timor-Leste will soon face a very dangerous situation if our leaders fail to address them. We therefore offer the following recommendations to help leaders to work towards resolving the problems outlined above.
- The Government and leaders must work to uphold the Rule of Law, while combating the Rule of the Deal which continues to dominate our state and society. In particular, the Government must prioritise developing the capacity of the justice sector to investigate and prosecute large-scale corruption. The Parliament’s approval of the Anti-Corruption Law was a good first step, but the Anti-Corruption Commission’s authority to bring cases is still limited. In the spirit of accountability and democracy, political leaders and parties should also publicly declare their assets and financial interests.
- While the vision contained in the National Strategic Development Plan (PEDN) 2011-2030 was commendable, it contained no realistic costing or concrete plans to achieve its goals and was not based on extensive public consultations or realistic evaluations of Timor-Leste’s material, social and environmental conditions. It will be extremely difficult to achieve most of PEDN’s objectives by 2030. However, government plans continue to refer to PEDN as the ultimate guide, without adapting plans to changing realities. In our view, Timor-Leste still lacks a coherent and viable national development strategy. Therefore, an open, honest debate about development priorities is urgently needed, including public consultations and detailed studies which can identify gaps, opportunities and risks. Authorities can then develop concrete goals and plans based on our financial and technical capacities and limitations, which can orient government policies towards a long-term strategic vision which is realistic, achievable and serves the needs of all Timor-Leste’s citizens.
- Instead of continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on major infrastructure with unclear benefits, Timor-Leste should make education a megaproject. While improving education takes a long time and doesn’t bring the same immediate political benefits as construction contracts, with enough political will and the correct policies it can be done. Education is fundamental to transforming our people’s lives and ensuring our long-term prosperity and security, and Timor-Leste cannot afford to continue without an integrated national strategy for improving public education. We therefore ask the Government, National Parliament and political parties to cooperate in creating an independent Working Group of Education Experts which can develop an education policy White Paper. This should then be adopted by the National Parliament as a binding document for the current and future governments to follow as a guide for education policy. Fundasaun Mahein believes that this is the only way to ensure that education policy does not change following each election based on competing party and elite interests.