In just a few months, Timor-Leste will hold parliamentary elections to choose the next Constitutional Government. Although the official campaign period has not yet begun, political leaders and parties are already holding public events aimed at convincing voters that they will address their needs and concerns.
As we have seen during previous election campaigns, parties do not present clear and comprehensive policy platforms. Instead, when leaders take to the podium, their rhetoric revolves principally around generic statements of what they will achieve if given the mandate to govern. Usually, this takes the form of announcing projects and mega-projects which are supposed to fix every problem, or promising “economic diversification” and “employment opportunities” without providing any concrete details on how this will be achieved. In the meantime, the electorate is mostly unable to distinguish between the parties on the basis of policy. Most people will cast their vote based on the names and reputations of charismatic leaders, while critical national security questions are left unaddressed.
Fundasaun Mahein understands that the Timorese people deserve more information from the candidates and parties about exactly what they will do if and when they form government. Below, we have identified nine security issues which we believe pose major challenges to the safety, security and stability of our people and state. We challenge the political parties to develop and publish serious policy responses to deal with these urgent issues. The parties that eventually form government will need to implement the policy over their five-year mandate, and they must be held to account.
- Martial and ritual arts groups violence: Amidst recurrent homicides and the general drunkenness, assault and violence that erupts nightly on the streets in Dili and all over Timor-Leste, the parties must address the problem of the martial and ritual arts groups and the associated problem of inadequate policing. Although the Government legalised three major groups last year, increasingly, these groups are acting outside the law, while the National Police (PNTL) lacks the resources – or the willingness – to tackle the problem. Fundasaun Mahein has proposed an expanded role for community policing and the establishment of Neighbourhood Watch network (adapted from the Australian system). However, we have not seen any clear plan from political parties about how they will address this issue. FM therefore asks Timor-Leste’s political leaders: what is your political strategy for managing martial arts groups and associated violence?
- The criminal justice system: Responsive crime prevention and policing must be supported by a criminal justice system that can prosecute cases fairly and promptly. Time lags in processing cases, however, have become untenable. As a consequence, many violent individuals feel a sense of impunity given the unacceptably long delays of the justice system in processing cases. This is eroding the fundamental deterrence function of the justice system, exacerbating street crime and placing undue stress on law enforcement. A peaceful and democratic society based on the rule of law cannot operate without a functioning judicial system. To date, politicians have mostly been ignoring the lax performance of the courts. Fundasaun Mahein and other civil society groups have called for a thorough review of the justice system. What is the political strategy to solve this crisis, including ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of Timorese judges, prosecutors and other court staff to process existing caseloads?
- Youth unemployment, education and recreational facilities: While there are multiple factors driving martial arts violence and recruitment, the violence of these groups is a symptom of deep frustration among youth for lack of education opportunities, employment options and recreational facilities. If the younger generation’s future is at risk, the security and well-being of Timor-Leste as a whole is jeopardised. Accordingly, Fundasaun Mahein has repeatedly called for a massive and comprehensive state investment in education, youth employment and recreation facilities, rather than the piecemeal ‘projects’ that we are accustomed to seeing in these areas. What youth policy can political parties present which responds to these urgent needs?
- Corruption: Corrupt elements within government and throughout the broader bureaucracy continue to hamper national security by channelling funds out of the public sphere and into private hands. Corruption is a national security issue because fewer resources are available for the sectors that produce a stable social order, not only the security sector (police and army) but also economic development and social services. Because the Anti-corruption Commission (CAC) is unable to prosecute as an independent body, the cases that are referred to the courts are susceptible to political influence. In the upcoming election campaign, the onus is on the political parties to put forward a convincing strategy to combat corruption. Fundasaun Mahein maintains that a good starting point would be to endow CAC with the authority not only to investigate but also prosecute, as in Indonesia. However, now we want to hear from the campaigning parties: How do they intend to address the issue of widespread corruption, beginning at the highest levels of the State?
- Wasteful government expenditure: While corruption steals funds from the State, the funds that remain in public coffers are often not spent wisely and equitably. The State has already poured enormous resources into mega-projects (e.g. in Oecusse and Suai) that are unlikely to pay dividends. Lifelong pensions go to privileged select groups, particularly members of parliament. New and costly weaponry and other materials are purchased for PNTL and the Military (F-FDTL), but it is not clear why this equipment is needed. Frequently, investments and purchases are not based on policy but on requests from high functionaries. Fundasaun Mahein has repeatedly appealed to politicians to base such procurement decisions on pre-established policy that clearly justifies purchases. We ask political parties and their leaders, what kind of policy will be guiding their decisions to ensure that budgeting and spending are balanced and responsible?
- Self-interested politicians: Sadly, FM observes that politicians in Timor-Leste tend to lack integrity. When they seek office, they rarely have the national interest at heart. Despite the promises made during campaigns, or criticisms they make while working for NGOs or political opposition, government service presents them with the opportunity to pursue personal interests. They grant themselves lifelong pensions and have the State buy them expensive vehicles, which are then auctioned off at bargain prices. When the time comes for the incumbent government to leave office, the high-ranking bureaucrats are replaced by the incoming government’s party members as well as by friends and families of government officials. What are the parties’ plans for ending this malpractice of basing office and employment not on expertise and skills but on party affiliations and connections?
- The depletion of the Petroleum Fund: Timor-Leste’s only productive oil field is in the process of being decommissioned, and the State budget is almost totally dependent on the savings from oil and gas production, currently invested in Timor-Leste’s sovereign Petroleum Fund. A recent World Bank report suggested that if current trends continue, the Fund may be exhausted by 2034, while the 2023 State Budget gives a similar estimate. ASEAN has been understandably reticent about Timor-Leste’s ASEAN bid for entry, not least on security and economic grounds. Politicians circumvent the issue with vague statements about how Timor-Leste’s ASEAN accession will stimulate the economy, attract foreign investment, and so on. Fundasaun Mahein calls on the contending parties to spell out in policy exactly what they will do to prepare Timor-Leste for what is justifiably referred to as the ‘fiscal cliff’. What, realistically and precisely, are the options for diversifying the Timorese economy?
- ASEAN accession, expense and crime: In the short-term (5 years), ASEAN membership is unlikely to deliver economic benefits to Timor-Leste. And yet, the fiscal strain of maintaining ten embassies, hosting events and summits, attending 1,200 meetings annually and budgeting for a sizeable diplomatic corps and the attendant bureaucracy will be extraordinary costly. The streamlining of border controls and the freer cross-border passage of goods, people and services are also likely to unleash the “dark side of greater ASEAN integration”, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have put it. Political ignorance of ASEAN abounds, as most citizens and public functionaries seem to believe that joining ASEAN will automatically bring huge benefits to Timor-Leste. Fundasaun Mahein calls on the parties, firstly, to learn what ASEAN is, and secondly, to explain what they will do about the foreseeable cross-border criminality. What is their plan to address drug smuggling, people trafficking, money-laundering, piracy, and dubious elements seeking a safe haven in ASEAN’s most poorly policed state?
- The control of firearms: ASEAN or not, Timor-Leste is already exposed to crime, and policy needs to be devised right now to tackle the aforementioned criminality that threatens the nation right now. Given the assortment and frequency of crimes related to the institutional and private possession, use and misuse of firearms, effective State oversight stands out as a critical election issue. Military-grade weapons go missing from PNTL and F-FDTL. Semi-automatic rifles, handguns and shotguns are regularly found in civilian hands, taken directly from the security services (including by high-ranking officials), procured locally, or smuggled in from abroad. At a minimum, hundreds of weapons are simply unaccounted for by the State amidst the absence of auditing and licencing systems. For years, Fundasaun Mahein has appealed to the Government to implement existing law to properly control the use and whereabouts of firearms in PNTL and F-FDTL, to undertake an annual nationwide audit, to devise new law to manage civilian firearm use or ban them altogether. We only have to recall the 2006 crisis to understand that political security and peace are at stake and, 22 years later, to marvel at the absence of a comprehensive National Security Policy! Will the campaigning political parties finally take responsibility and tell us what they are going to do about firearms control if they form government? Or will they continue to ignore the issue?
In summary, the current period is a make-or-break moment in Timor-Leste’s history. Time is running out. What happens over the next five-year parliamentary term will be critical to the future of Timor-Leste. Fundasaun Mahein also understands that this is the 1975 generation’s last chance to rule, and we implore the historic resistance leaders to not only consider their legacy, but also to put Timor-Leste’s future on a solid footing when they step down and allow the younger generation to take over.
In the meantime, we cannot wait to see how the incoming government will govern. Before the election, Fundasaun Mahein urges the political parties to state and document their policies, to base their campaign on these policies, and, for those parties that win government, be accountable to these policies over the next five years. Which of the 21 political parties are up to the task of seriously addressing these questions to save the country from ruin? It is the view of Fundasaun Mahein that the parties who can provide realistic policy solutions to the issues outlined above before the commencement of the 2023 parliamentary election campaign, will distinguish themselves as the parties who are best prepared to govern. They will therefore be the parties most deserving of the popular vote.