Michael Leach – East Timorese voters at next month's parliamentary elections will be dressed a little differently from usual. The decision to hold the vote on the Sabbath – an unusual choice in a strongly Catholic nation – will bring tens of thousands of voters to the polling booths in their Sunday best. But the Timorese Church doesn't seem concerned: it is urging voters to "exercise their right to political participation in peace, love and responsibility and to continue to respect each other in the legislative elections, from the campaign period to the polling day."
As ever in Timor-Leste's proportional system, a large number of parties – seventeen this time – are jostling for votes. The key contest will be between Fretilin and Xanana Gusmao's CNRT, but whichever has the opportunity to assemble a majority will almost certainly need the help of one or more small parties. Following Jose Ramos-Horta's election as president with CNRT backing last year, the elections are the chance for Gusmao's party to return to government.
Since 2020 Timor-Leste has been governed by three parties – Fretilin, the smaller People's Liberation Party, or PLP, and the youth-oriented KHUNTO – despite the latter two having formed part of CNRT's winning coalition at the 2018 poll. That coalition collapsed in 2020, partly because the former president, Fretilin's Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, refused to install a number of CNRT ministers.
As part of a failed effort to force an early election in 2020, CNRT opposed its own coalition government's budget. When the move backfired, Fretilin combined with the PLP and KHUNTO, allowing the PLP's Taur Matan Ruak to continue as prime minister and forcing Gusmao's CNRT into opposition.
Last year's presidential election was widely seen as Gusmao's first step back to power, with CNRT strongly supporting the successful campaign of Ramos-Horta, who won the run-off election easily with 62 per cent of the vote. That resounding victory certainly bodes well for CNRT, though some caution should be applied in equating the two campaigns.
The current government parties are running separately this year but recently announced a willingness to form a post-electoral coalition. With Fretilin's vote around the 30 per cent mark in recent elections, the renewed combination would certainly be competitive. But the momentum from the 2022 presidential elections suggests CNRT's support may be substantial, with such polls as do exist backing the sense of a mood for change after a difficult few years of pandemic, floods and economic contraction.
CNRT may need a comprehensive win at the polls, though, as it isn't entirely clear who it might align with apart from the Democratic Party. (The minor party's vote remains resilient, backed by solid district structures.) But victory has a way of bringing unexpected allies into the fold in proportional systems, attracted by the offer of ministries and influence. With seventeen parties registered and many new voters, unexpected entrants into parliament might be coaxed into a post-electoral alliance.
The lack of pre-electoral coalitions is one notable feature of this election. While Fretilin has always maintained that the most-voted party should be given the first chance to form government – a position that fostered pre-election coalitions while Fretilin's Lu-Olo was president – Ramos-Horta made it clear in his first term as president (2007-12) that he will accept any post-electoral coalition that controls a majority in the parliament. The real horse-trading this year will thus take place after the poll.
Ramos-Horta's election has moderated political tensions, with his middle-way style of leadership and inclination to consensus reducing the heat of political stand-offs. Despite the desire of his CNRT backers for an early election, he chose not to dissolve the current parliament before its full term was up. His second tenure as president has been marked, even more than his first, by a throwing open of the doors of the presidency to the wider public. This direct, personal touch demonstrably endears him to the people.
The 21 May election will be closely watched, and not only in Timor-Leste. At stake is nothing less than the young democracy's economic future. Warnings of a looming "fiscal cliff" have intensified as the national Petroleum Fund approaches what could well be its final decade of solvency unless new funds from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field start to flow in.
With the government's annual budgets having exceeded sustainable calls on the fund for some years, everyone understands that Timor-Leste must diversify economically to promote new job-creating industries before the crunch hits. As prime minister, Gusmao championed the Tasi Mane oil and gas processing megaproject on Timor's south coast as the solution, rejecting the alternative of sending the raw product to existing facilities in Darwin. Tasi Mane would mean greater returns to the nation, he argued, despite the intimidating upfront capital costs.
Though the current government acknowledges the need for economic diversification and developed a Covid recovery plan based partly on promoting new job-creating industries, it has not articulated a comprehensive plan for Greater Sunrise. It simply changed the leadership of key petroleum agencies and stalled on any major investment in the project, effectively putting it on the backburner, but offered no clear alternative to Gusmao's Tasi Mane vision.
In part, this is a testimony to Gusmao's charismatic legitimacy. It also reflects his success in tying the successful maritime boundary dispute with Australia to the separate issue of how the remaining oil wealth should best be managed. The nationalist enthusiasm associated with the victory over Australia has made outright challenges to the Tasi Mane megaproject politically difficult for his opponents.
The other noteworthy features of the 2023 election are generational. While the birthrate has slowed and Timor-Leste's median age has risen from eighteen to twenty-one in recent years, a large percentage of the electorate will be voting for the first time next month, making the results less predictable than they might be. Parties will be at pains to offer a suite of youth policies, including new job and training opportunities for each year's large number of school graduates, whose share of the population is far greater than in countries like Australia (where the median age is thirty-eight).
Linked to the pressing need for job opportunities is rising concern at the scale and activities of Timor-Leste's martial arts groups. Open conflicts on Dili's streets have become an increasing feature of news bulletins. With KHUNTO's strong base among group members, and another party with similar links, Os Verdes (the Greens), entering this year's election fray, local NGOs are worried by their rising political influence. Their capacity to cause social unrest is strongly dependent on national economic performance, with youth unemployment a key driver of martial arts activity.
At the other end of the demographic spectrum, and even more significantly, next month's election is also likely to be the last to feature the key leaders of the 1975 generation, which has dominated politics since the restoration of independence in 2002. Gusmao will turn eighty in 2026, and other major figures of that generation are not far behind him. As most observers have noted, the transition to a new generation of leaders will have to be well managed to maintain political stability.
As the campaigning commences, the implications of a possible CNRT victory in May are clear: the Tasi Mane megaproject would again be front and centre, with implications for the relationship with Australia, which continues to argue that the decision lies with still-sceptical commercial joint venture partners. Meanwhile, recent political developments in Australia have made the option of processing in Darwin a more vexed one.
With final election of the 1975 generation dawning, the links between economic sustainability, the "youth bulge" and Timor-Leste's long-term political stability are clear, making this election – and the government that follows – highly significant for the country's future.