Timor-Leste’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be an important step in consolidating the relative stability the country has enjoyed since recovering from the 2006 crisis, but a number of security risks deserve continued attention, according to the International Crisis Group.
Timor-Leste’s Elections: Leaving Behind a Violent Past?, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, provides a snapshot political briefing in advance of presidential polls to be held on 17 March and parliamentary elections due in late June, and examines potential security risks.
The breadth of the competition and the lack of any reliable polling mean predicting the outcome of either poll is difficult, but the real contest is between a handful of familiar names. In the parliamentary elections, the prime minister’s party CNRT and the opposition Fretilin are expected to out-poll the smaller parties by a large margin. Each of them is hoping to win a majority, but a coalition government led by one of them is more likely.
The country is markedly more peaceful than when general elections were last conducted in 2007, and relations among the small circle of political leaders are friendlier, keeping political tensions largely tempered. But many of the root causes of fragility persist: weak law enforcement, gang and martial arts group violence, and a growing number of unemployed youth. No one is sure how closely these issues will feed into political rivalry, but any deliberate manipulation of these frustrations has the potential to be incendiary. The unrealistic expectations of many of the 24 parties competing and the high stakes of the political competition may also stoke tensions.
“The greatest risk is the near-complete impunity for political violence”, says Cillian Nolan, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Analyst. “The candidates should make it clear now that such crimes will no longer be forgiven”.
A number of security risks deserve enhanced attention. While relations within the crowded security sector have improved, smooth cooperation is not assured. Public relations should be a key focus of the planned joint operations centre for election security response: rumours have stoked violence in the past and a quick-footed response by police in combating misinformation could help keep the peace. Careful policing will be required to respond to fears that martial arts group violence could escalate during polls, but civil society has a role to play in monitoring any use of such groups for intimidation.
The UN also has a role to play. Beyond supporting national authorities in the logistical administration of the second national polls since independence, the UN mission should be ready to take both private and public steps in response to any serious violations of electoral regulations and codes of conduct.
In the long term, several steps could be taken to reduce the pressures that build up around polls. These include staggering presidential and parliamentary polls in different years, and introducing effective pre-election opinion polling to counter the unrealistic expectations that many parties encourage, and quick counts to bolster faith in the results.
“Whatever government is inaugurated in the second half of the year, it will face difficult work trying to deliver on ambitious plans and expectations for economic development in what remains an impoverished country with a very large bank account”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Without significant progress in areas such as job creation and strengthening of the rule of law, the prospects for elections in 2017 may not look as bright”.