Generational Politics, Political Egoism and Timor-Leste’s Future

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Many Timorese people and international observers expect that the upcoming Presidential and Parliamentary elections will be critical events in Timor-Leste’s history, for several reasons. Coming 20 years after the restoration of independence, these will likely be the last elections to be dominated by the 1975 generation of leaders. While major resistance figures remain in the most powerful party and government positions, younger leaders and parties are increasingly challenging the power of these entrenched groups. Timor-Leste is therefore likely to experience heightened political struggle and tension in the coming year as the younger generation continues to assert its voice as the rightful heir to political power.

In addition to the question of generational politics, these elections present an opportunity to resolve Timor-Leste’s political impasse and address structural problems facing our society and economy. For much of our independence, Timor-Leste has suffered from political instability and division due to different factions constantly battling to “take down” the other side. The “guerrilla politics” and political egoism of the last 20 years have contributed to administrative paralysis, an unsustainable economy and limited improvement in many of our people’s daily lives, all of which threaten Timor-Leste’s national security and stability.

Although Fundasaun Mahein does not believe that a return to the chaos and violence of the past is likely, we are still concerned about the long-term implications of the unresolved personal rivalry between key leaders of the independence struggle, and the lack of preparation for the transfer of power from these leaders to the “new generation”. This issue will be a major source of tension over the coming year, and its resolution will be decisive for Timor-Leste’s future development. To contribute to the debate around generational transfer of power and personal rivalries in politics, this article discusses some of the implications we see for Timor-Leste’s future from the upcoming elections.

From the beginning of Timor-Leste’s independence movement, in addition to showing great bravery and skill, major political parties and leaders have unfortunately demonstrated an inability to compromise and work together for the national interest. Major examples include the civil war between UDT and Fretilin and Xanana’s split from Fretilin. The latter was the seed of Timor-Leste’s internal crisis from 2004 until 2008 and is a major factor in the ongoing political impasse which has paralysed Timor-Leste’s Government since the 2017 Parliamentary elections.

Arguably, most political divisions are driven by a combination of economic, geopolitical and ideological interests. In Timor-Leste’s case, the question of who controls the state’s petroleum wealth and the dictates the vision for economic development is one of the main sources of political tension and struggle. While we believe that the historic leaders see themselves as working for the national interest, and that they may feel that the young generation is not yet ready to take over, the reality is that private economic interests always play a role in politics. Sadly, we suspect that the one of the reasons the older generation continues to cling on to power is the opportunities presented by Timor-Leste’s oil for personal power and enrichment.

As we all know, in addition to economic interest, personal rivalry between major political leaders has driven much political conflict in Timor-Leste, especially during the post-independence period. Fundasaun Mahein and many others have long called on historic leaders to resolve their personal differences through dialogue, which can enable the major parties to form a unity government and move forward with plans to resolve the country’s long-term problems. However, until now these calls have been largely ignored, and leaders continue to attack each other and use various tactics to destroy the other in the game for power and control.

Fundasaun Mahein understands why the resistance leaders believe that they deserve to lead the country. Their hard work and sacrifices were instrumental in bringing about independence, and their sense of having a “right to rule” is the natural result of the successful independence movement. Moreover, establishing and leading a new country with a violent history and surrounded by powerful neighbours is not an easy task, and current leaders may feel that the younger generation lacks the experience to manage these complex relationships. Thus, while there are many areas to criticise, we are grateful that Timor-Leste has continued to develop its political maturity and avoided major additional conflicts after the 2006 crisis.

At the same time, certain leaders’ continued refusal to compromise with political rivals and egotistical approach to politics have led Timor-Leste down a dangerous path. During twenty years of independence Timor-Leste has seen endless political fighting, which has prevented continuity of decision making and harmed overall development. In addition to personal and party rivalries, the five-year election cycle has contributed further to “short-termism” in political decision making, where immediate concerns about stability and loyalty are prioritised over long-term development plans. This is a major reason why state planning has focused on big projects and sharing benefits among powerful constituencies, rather than the more difficult task of improving the productive economy, basic infrastructure and social conditions.

This elite preoccupation with ensuring loyalty by buying off powerful constituencies has led to rapid increase in socio-economic inequality. Some people have become very rich, while many ordinary people have seen little improvement in their daily lives. Timor-Leste’s financial future is in doubt due to the lack of alternative revenues and stagnant non-oil economy. Two recent test oil wells revealed no commercial oil deposits, dashing the hopes of some who believed that oil could continue to fund the state for decades to come. Meanwhile, new parties have gained support due to widespread dissatisfaction with politicians’ failure to compromise and the lack of improvement in people’s lives. Open violence between martial arts groups in Dili streets in the past weeks are worrying signs of social tensions, and Fundasaun Mahein is concerned that the situation could spiral out of control, especially if leaders use provocative tactics during the election campaign.

We are also concerned that the political habits of the older generation have been adopted by some younger politicians, out of both necessity and personal interest. Corruption tends to breed more corruption, and as private networks of power and influence become more entrenched, it becomes more and more difficult to take action to “clean up” the system. The younger politicians may see that the only way to “win” in politics is to adapt to the existing system, which includes the cultivation of patronage networks with “red envelopes” and promises of political favours and economic benefits. However, if corruption continues to grow, it will be impossible to resolve Timor-Leste’s key problems of economic inequality and financial sustainability, and will lead to even bigger problems in the future.

Therefore, for Fundasaun Mahein, the key question in this upcoming Presidential election is which candidate can bring the historic political leaders together to participate in constructive, honest dialogue, and finally put aside their egos to resolve Timor-Leste’s long-term problems. Through such a dialogue, parties can decide on a path to form a unity government following the 2023 elections, with concrete plans for socio-economic development, investment in basic infrastructure and services, and ensuring equitable distribution of benefits from Timor-Leste’s petroleum wealth. Any dialogue process will also need to address the question of planning for a peaceful transition of power from the 1975 generation to the younger generation of emerging leaders.

While the formation of a unity government in the future seems to be necessary to ensure that power is shared between major parties, Fundasaun Mahein hopes that the new President will not dissolve the National Parliament, as has been discussed in many media reports. We urge candidates to consider the legal and technical complications of such a move, possible social conflict and tension, and the impact that new elections and change of government would have on public administration, services and state finances. Instead, we believe that the current Government should finish its mandate according to the election schedule, and the public can then vote to decide which parties will form the next Government in the 2023 Parliamentary election.

By taking the above actions, historic leaders can secure their collective legacy of winning Timor-Leste’s independence, establishing the state and its democratic institutions, and ensuring the peaceful transition of power to the next generation. It is also critical that old and young leaders work together to excise the cancer of corruption through a combination of changing mental habits, party structures, legal reforms and robust procedures for the approval of all payments and contracts. On the other hand, if leaders fail to choose the path of reconciliation, dialogue and transparency, and instead continue with the violent, corrupt and egotistical approach which has dominated our country’s politics for so long, social inequality and public dissatisfaction will continue to grow, while Timor-Leste’s petroleum savings will continue to be spent unsustainably on big projects, expensive cars and houses for the few, and imported goods from China and Indonesia. Within a relatively short time, this could bankrupt the country and lead to a major crisis, with terrible results for our people’s wellbeing and our national sovereignty. To avoid this scenario, we challenge our leaders and the current Presidential candidates to commit to working together to overcome their past differences, and finally realise the dream of independence by securing a peaceful and equitable future for all our people.

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