The people of Timor-Leste will head to the polls tomorrow for parliamentary elections that represent a fork in the road for the country’s future.
2012 marks a decade of independence for the small southeast Asian state, which has a turbulent recent history. A 25-year spell of Indonesian occupation, which saw the death of 100 000 Timorese, ended in 1999 after an overwhelming vote for independence. Militia then murdered hundreds and reduced towns to ruins, before a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission helped restore order. In one of the rarest forms of peace operation, a UN force was installed as a transitional administration, mandated to exercise legislative and executive authority during the transition period, to build capacity to allow for self-government.
However, as the mission wound up in 2005, there was concern that the transition back to self-government had taken place too quickly and in the midst of economic problems, violence broke out and the UN was forced to authorise a fresh peacekeeping mission. The operation was organized to consolidate stability, enhance democratic governance, and facilitate political dialogue.
Elections followed in 2007, which were largely peaceful, but the elected President, Jose Ramos-Horta, was later shot twice and nearly died, leading to demands for the UN peacekeeping force to remain in place. During the subsequent years, police power has been restored in certain regions, whilst justice systems have been consolidated and tested, not least in sentencing those responsible for the attempted assassination.
Earlier this year, ex-guerrilla fighter, Jose Maria Vasconcelos, replaced Ramos-Horta as President after winning at the ballot box, although the structure of the electoral system means that power is weighted towards the prime minister, making Saturday’s election the most important of the three scheduled for this year. Twenty-one parties are contesting for places in the 65-seat national parliament.
This year’s campaigns have been relatively quiet, but there are concerns in some quarters that there may be post-election trouble. This is especially so given that a high number of parties are contesting a relatively small number of seats, making the formation of a coalition a likely outcome.
Nevertheless, given the peaceful campaign period, the UN expects and hopes for a peaceful election and aftermath, with plans to withdraw its peacekeeping force towards the end of the year.