Li-Li Chen – Five days after polls closed, the presidential election in Timor-Leste, Asia's youngest democracy, seems set for a second-round of voting. As of 9 p.m. on March 21, former President Jose Ramos-Horta, of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), was leading current President Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin) with 46.58 percent of the national vote. Although the result needs to be verified and announced by the National Elections Commission and the Court of Appeals, it seems almost certain that a second round run-off between Ramos-Horta and Lu Olo, two of the highest vote gainers, will be held on April 19, given that no single candidate won gained a clear majority in the first round of voting.
With 664,106 people participating out of 859,613 registered voters, the overall participation rate was 77 percent, 6 percent higher than in 2017. This is all the more impressive given that it does not include thousands of young voters, mostly students from the capital Dili and other municipalities, who failed to cast their ballots due to incomplete documents, COVID-19 protocols, or the inability to register or enlist their names on the voters' list.
The decisive role of youth
The March 19 presidential election, the fifth since independence in 2002, featured more candidates than ever before: 16 in total, including four women. This reflects the emergence of young leaders as well as the generational divide between resistance leaders of 1975 and their successors. In addition to Ramos-Horta and Lu Olo, the rising youth-representative party, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), and its female candidate, Armanda Berta dos Santos, came in third place, with 8.7 percent of the national vote so far. Meanwhile, young voters who do not have strong party or regional identity have played a decisive role in determining this election. The median age of voters is 21, and about 75,237 were voting for the first time.
Although many believe that Ramos-Horta will win the April run-off, this election has highlighted the indispensable role of the youth in shaping the political landscape of Timor-Leste. Despite the lingering influence of old generation leaders like Ramos-Horta and Lu Olo, the youth are demanding political change and more representation for and by themselves.
Some 70 percent of Timor-Leste's population is under 30, yet the young face numerous challenges, including unemployment, education, malnutrition, domestic violence, and the problems of the oil-dominant economy. The Timorese government has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2013. The country's Constitution also guarantees that all citizens have right to participate in political life and in the public affairs of the country.
Delayed inter-generational change
While the old generation of resistance fighters is aging, it has not shown any interests in handing over power to younger leaders. The resistance heroes of 1975 have remained in power since independence. A process known as the Maubisse Forum, which began in 2010 and was attended by main leaders of old generation, such as Xanana Gusmao, Mari Arkatiri, Lu Olo, and Ramos-Horta, envisioned the preparation of younger leaders in advance of the 2012 elections, but a power transition has not occurred since then. Xanana Gusmao's statement at the time that the youth do not yet have the authority to lead still holds true for the 2022 election: a younger leader is only possible with Gusmao's support. Ramos-Horta's return to politics with the backing of Gusmao and the CNRT in order to challenge Fretilin's Lu Olo has demonstrated just that.
But many Timorese youth are becoming dissatisfied with the long-standing political dramas between Fretilin and CNRT, as well as the ineffectiveness of the government's response to COVID-19, natural disasters, poverty, and other development challenges. They respect the older generations, yet they are more concerned about their uncertain future and the sustainability of the country's development. During the election campaign, most younger presidential candidates, including journalist Virgilio Guterres, academic Antero B. da Silva, and former U.N. representative Milena Pires, pledged to advance youth-centered development in the agricultural, health, and education sectors.
Changing youth attitudes
Moreover, as the country's demography changes, more and more youth are considering capable persons with alternative visions to represent them, including female candidates. Young people who study abroad have expressed their support for Pires since they are convinced that women can solve the political and economic crises created by male elites, affirming a recent survey finding that 80 percent of respondents want to see more women in politics. In addition, youth participation in the election has invigorated Timorese democracy and energized larger parts of the community as campaigners, supporters, and poll staff. Young people mounted colorful campaigns for this month's election; they also innovated in their campaign strategies, such as by undertaking popular consultations and direct dialogues with communities, which contrasted with the traditional methods of mass mobilization.
Benedito's supporters, mostly university students, reclaimed "Maubere," a Tetum word referring to the Indigenous Timorese people. This word was initially used by the Portuguese colonizers to refer to the illiterate and poor Mumbai people, and was later redefined by Ramos-Horta as the anti-colonial political identity of Fretilin. This has now been redefined further to represent the disenfranchised class of students, farmers, and workers, by those hoping to reshape political discourses and practices dominated by and beneficial to the ruling class.
CNRT and Ramos-Horta say that their priority is to solve the country's chronic political deadlock, which has plagued Lu Olo's coalition government since 2017, through presidential power. But there are some concerns with available options to Ramos-Horta. If the new president dissolves the parliament, he would either need to realign the current parliamentary coalition, which includes, Khunto and the People's Liberation Party (PLP) or call for a new parliamentary election. In the latter event, CNRT would need to win a majority of 33 out of 65 seats in order to become the ruling party. Ramos-Horta could also negotiate with other parties, such as PLP and Khunto, to build a majority coalition within the current parliament, or cooperate with other smaller parties in opposition, such as the Democratic Party. Should a dominant coalition among CNRT and other smaller parties be formed, the political crisis may be solved, but the system could lack checks and balances between the governing institutions, preventing the youth outside CNRT and its allies from attaining a share of leadership roles. However, realigning the coalition or dissolving the parliament in attempt to weaken Fretilin's power in the legislature could backfire, complicating the current situation, and thus perpetuating the rule of older generations at the expense of the youth.
Youth make up most of Timor-Leste's population, and they are on the rise, especially women. From this election, we can see that the vote share of dos Santos from Khunto, a woman and a first-time contender for president, was lower only than Ramos-Horta and Lu Olo, while Pires, who did not have strong popular base, got one of the highest votes from registered overseas voters. The power transition from the old to younger generations, and from men to women, is slowly taking place, regardless of the desire of the older generation of leaders. If he prevails in the second round of the election, Ramos-Horta will need to take the youth seriously, and prioritize human development, because the meaningful inclusion and participation of youth is the key to the nation moving beyond the perpetual game of manu mutin futu manu mean – "white rooster fighting red rooster."
[Li-Li Chen is a scholar and current lecturer at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e of Timor-Leste. Her research interests include human rights, security and peacekeeping, gender and development, as well as politics in Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Timor-Leste.]