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Note from Dili: Timor-Leste's hard-won democracy stands out from the crowd

Brisbane times - April 28, 2023

Chris Barrett, Dili – It is election season across much of South-East Asia, but nowhere in these parts will the torch of democracy shine brighter than here in Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor).

A year after Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta reclaimed the presidency, other familiar faces are hitting the campaign trail in the lead-up to a crucial parliamentary poll, which will determine who forms government.

Not for the first time, the poll has been cast as a showdown between independence hero Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and Mari Alkatiri's Fretilin. There is a great deal at stake.

In the backdrop is the country's unsteady reliance on natural resources, a plight highlighted by the projection that its petroleum-based sovereign wealth fund, which pays for more than 80 per cent of state spending, will run dry in a decade.

Gusmao, the former guerrilla fighter and Timor-Leste's first president, is seeking to return his party to power, championing his long-held vision of piping liquified natural gas from the $50 billion Greater Sunrise fields to the country's south coast in a bid to secure its economic prosperity.

It's a cause that has also been taken up with gusto by Ramos-Horta since he became president again with the backing of Gusmao and CNRT, by hinting that the country could turn to China if Australia and commercial partner Woodside Energy insists on processing gas in Darwin instead.

The potential geopolitical ramifications mean Canberra will be watching the May 21 election particularly closely.

Polls are also looming large elsewhere in South-East Asia.

Thailand is gearing up to vote next month, Cambodia will follow in July while in Malaysia, the tenuous grip of Anwar Ibrahim's coalition government may be put to the test by the results of half a dozen coming state contests.

The pace is also starting to pick up in Indonesia's 2024 presidential race, with a likely field of three candidates taking shape.

There are asterisks of varying size that can be applied to some of this year's elections.

In Thailand, for instance, the game is stacked against opposition groups attempting to overcome pro-army parties before a ballot has even been cast.

Pheu Thai, the party associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and fronted by his 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn, is predicted to capture the most seats in the 500-member parliament on May 14.

But the appointment of a 250-strong, military-aligned senate that also has a say on the leadership makes it an uneven playing field from the outset. That's without even considering the spectre of a military coup, a far from uncommon occurrence in Thailand when the armed forces don't get their way.

As for Cambodia, opposition voices have been drowned out by intimidation and prosecution to such an extent that Hun Sen's ruling party, which holds all 125 seats in parliament, doesn't face a real challenge.

There is also an election on the cards this year in junta-controlled Myanmar, but it's widely anticipated to be a sham.

In such a field, Timor-Leste certainly stands out from the pack.

"This is the most vibrant democracy in South-East Asia by a long way," said Swinburne University of Technology professor Michael Leach. "The Timorese fought for their democracy in a way that many other countries did not, and they value it accordingly."

While the old guard again take centre stage, young people will have a big role in the outcome. The median age in Timor-Leste is 21 and roughly 15 per cent of an estimated 900,000 registered voters will be first timers. Importantly, it is also the first time people born after the restoration of independence in 2002 will be old enough to vote. They must choose representatives for all 65 seats in parliament, with a 33-seat majority needed to govern.

They will do so with issues such as high youth unemployment, poverty and poor infrastructure and services still major problems, despite the billions of dollars in revenue collected from oil and gas in the past two decades.

"On the streets of Dili the Timorese experience is increasingly defined by a blend of pride and frustration," said University of Adelaide anthropologist Michael Rose.

"It's a busy place of big families, small farms and deep roots, but although work is rarely hard to find, a regular salary is.

"Many seek to go abroad, but without a functioning economy at home, the money they remit back into the family networks can only make so much difference."

Age dictates this may well be the last campaign for Timor-Leste's perennial protagonists, including 76-year-old Gusmao, who is revered for his struggle against Indonesian occupation.

But with their country's economic future on the line, it is the generation who have grown up in peace and who will have to deal with the decisions made today.

Source: https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/asia/note-from-dili-timor-leste-s-hard-won-democracy-stands-out-from-the-crowd-20230427-p5d3qo.htm