Unprofessional behaviour of political elders threatens democracy and national stability

Photo : Fundasaun Mahein

A democratic system remains stable and healthy only as long as the public has faith in its political leaders and democratic processes. By contrast, the greatest threat to democracy comes when that faith is undermined by the actions of some leaders. For years, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) has observed that our political elders often insult or attack each other using crude or threatening language. At other times, their communication lacks professionalism and they speak publicly about official matters which should be dealt with privately, leading to public controversy.

FM is concerned that this behaviour shows a lack of maturity and respect for their high political office and responsibilities. Our history teaches us that when political leaders use such tactics during times of heightened political tensions, it can lead to national instability and violence. We also see that the Timorese public is increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of our ruling elites given the widespread corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of state resources. FM has written this article to explore the link between political behaviour and social disorder, with the hope that the public and junior party members can pressure elder political leaders to respect one another and refrain from making threats or using undignified language during their political campaigns and speeches. Instead, they must focus on their primary task: working for the national interest and improving the lives of the Timorese people.

Around the world, politicians regularly attack their opponents by discussing their past record or behaviour. Sometimes, they use exaggerations or lies to “take down” the other side or encourage supporters to protest against election results. When political institutions and socio-economic conditions are highly developed, such actions rarely lead to socio-political disorder which threatens the stability of the state. On the other hand, experiences in Timor-Leste – and other countries with “fragile” or under-developed political institutions – illustrate how the irresponsible actions of domestic elites can facilitate state collapse and mass violence. While some politicians may benefit from this chaos, it brings disastrous consequences for the state’s development and the lives of ordinary people. The ongoing personalization of political disagreements reminds us of the long history of political splits and rivalry which have been a major source of conflict, instability and lack of progress in our country.

In Timor-Leste, we are accustomed to hearing political leaders hurl insults and use aggressive language. Many Timorese people find such behaviour entertaining, as it provides a spectacle and is more accessible to ordinary people than complex discussions about policy and development issues. Some leaders may believe that attacking others or questioning their past is a good strategy for manipulating people’s emotions and winning elections. They also might see that pointing fingers at others helps to cover up their own misdeeds. FM believes that such behaviour insults the memory of those who sacrificed their lives to achieve independence, and reveals a lack of respect for both the Timorese public and for the dignity of their political office.

In a mature democratic system based on the rule of law, all people are considered equal and subject to the same rules. This means that political elites are held accountable when they perform poorly or commit crimes, as happens when a low-level functionary or administrator does similar actions. However, the reality in our country is that most political leaders freely violate rules with impunity, and behave in ways that disregard democratic norms. They share positions and benefits with family members and political clients, while attacking their opponents for doing the same. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Timorese people continue to live a life without hope, as political leaders offer them false promises in return for votes.

FM wonders if some of our elder leaders have been in powerful positions for so long that they have forgotten what it is like to be an “ordinary” person who suffers consequences when they behave badly. FM has written previously that Timor-Leste’s strong culture of elder respect and patriarchy – and the “hero” status of resistance leaders – means that older men who occupy powerful positions rarely face consequences when they behave poorly. Most people are either afraid to question them, or avoid criticising them out of respect for their position as “Maun Boot”. In government offices, advisors and civil servants rarely criticise their bosses as they fear losing their position and income.

From FM’s perspective, if Timor-Leste wants to claim that it is a Democratic Republic based on the Rule of Law, and not a corrupt, semi-feudal dictatorship of former guerrillas and various political opportunists, major changes must be made at the highest political levels. An important step would be for elder politicians to improve their behaviour and professionalism during the final years of their political careers. The frequent use of crude insults, veiled threats or passive-aggressive responses given to media is not a productive or appropriate form of political communication in a modern democracy. Political leaders and state officials must exercise restraint talking about each other in public appearances or media interviews when they have disagreements. If they cannot disagree respectfully in public, they should share disagreements via official letters and memos, or in private meetings.

More fundamentally, the character and composition of state institutions must change from its current clientelist nature, in which everything functions based on party and family networks, to a modernised meritocratic and technocratic system, based on competence, capacity and performance. Many people – including President Horta – have argued that these changes are necessary to rescue our nation from deeper economic crisis, social unrest and state collapse. FM cannot provide any simple answers, as we appreciate that these problems are the result of Timor-Leste’s complex history and social structure. They are also a symptom of our fragile economic situation in which the majority of people must struggle each day to meet their basic needs. However, the poor behaviour of politicians also contributes to our country’s deep political and socio-economic problems. When political elders behave unprofessionally and share state benefits with their networks while the majority is excluded, is anyone surprised that the state bureaucracy is dysfunctional, human resources remain weak, or that corruption and violence are widespread across society?

FM acknowledges the achievements of Timor-Leste’s governments and political leaders, including expanding electricity access, improving national roads and (mostly) maintaining peace. Nonetheless, it is clear that the old generation has also overseen corruption and waste of state resources, while achieving minimal progress in critical areas such as economic diversification, public education and sanitation. The current practice of nominating members of Parliament according to party lists also means that there is no organic link between the National Parliament and different municipalities and sucos. Timorese politics thus continue to be dominated by a well-connected Dili elite, with an almost total absence of political candidates representing – and programs targeting – the younger generation, rural areas and poor people.

FM recently surveyed more than 100 young people about their views on existing political parties and the upcoming election. The results suggest that a significant proportion of Timorese youth are unhappy with the current situation. On social media, many express dissatisfaction with the options in the upcoming parliamentary election, complaining that there are no new faces, only the same old men who focus on the past rather than presenting programs to improve the daily lives of the people. It is not surprising that new parties such as KHUNTO and Os Verdes have emerged to challenge the traditional parties. Many young people prefer to go abroad or join martial arts groups to ensure security and prosperity for themselves, rather than participate in established political parties.

Some may see the rise of new political parties as strengthening our democracy, as voters can withdraw – or threaten to withdraw – their votes from established parties, which could push them to respond to people’s basic needs. However, given our country’s history of instability and the relative immaturity of our political culture and institutions, we fear that increased political competition could lead to even greater political disunity, corruption and mismanagement. Likewise, the flow of motivated young people out of the country to work abroad might bring income and improve skill levels, but it also shows that many youth lack hope of improving their lives inside their home country. With the lack of economic improvement, rising inequality and disorder, and continued provocative behaviour of political elders, Timor-Leste could face serious social unrest and political instability in the future.

The Timorese public has tolerated the errors of the historic leaders since 2002 because they succeeded in winning independence for the country. Although there are increasing signs of disillusionment with the political process, FM believes the people are willing to give the resistance heroes one more chance to rule. However, unless ruling elites improve their professionalism and make serious efforts to address the fundamental needs of the people, support for alternative parties and parallel institutions such as martial arts groups will continue to grow. Meanwhile, our young people will continue to seek opportunities abroad, while large numbers of people live in poverty and hopelessness.

With respect for their historical achievements, we remind our leaders that they must set a good example for the younger generation, which means behaving with professionalism and refraining from insulting other politicians to stir up controversy and win public support. Many observers have said that Timor-Leste is a “fragile state” – while FM believes in the resilience and resourcefulness of our people, the state’s fragility is exposed and exacerbated by precisely such behaviour by political elites. Therefore, we urge political elders to separate their personal conflicts from official duties, end harmful and divisive attacks, and focus on their most urgent and important task: building a just, prosperous and peaceful future for all Timorese people.


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