Statebuilding challenges for the future Timorese government

Published: Posted on

Nicolas Lemay-HebertNicolas Lemay-Hébert is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham and research group leader, “State-building, Security and Development,” at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham. He has conducted fieldwork in Timor-Leste (Summer 2008) for the Institutions for Fragile States Program – Princeton University. His recent and forthcoming publications on the subject include “The ‘Empty Shell’ Approach: The Set Up Process of International Administrations in Timor-Leste and Kosovo, Its Consequences and Lessons,” International Studies Perspectives 12(2), 2011, 188-209; “Coerced Transitions in Timor-Leste and Kosovo: Managing Competing Objectives of Institution-Building and Local Empowerment,” Democratization 19(3), 2012, 465-485; “A Sisyphean Exercise of SSR and Statebuilding: Examining the Role of the UN in Timor-Leste,” in Felix Heiduk, ed. Moving From Policy to Practice: Security Sector Reform in Southeast Asia. Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2013 (under review).

Timor-Leste held its third parliamentary elections last July, which were seen as a crucial test for the nation, especially with the United Nations’ scheduled withdrawal by year’s end. Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) received 37% of the vote, winning 30 seats out of 65. The CNRT formed a coalition government with the Democratic Party (PD), which represented 10% of the vote and 8 seats, and Frenti-Mudansa (FM), with 3% of the vote and 2 seats. The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) came second and will be the opposition in parliament. Despite being carried out peacefully, the 2012 elections were marked by a certain degree of postelectoral violence perpetrated by Fretilin members (or thought to be) after the constitution of the government. 63 cars were damaged, 7 houses were set on fire and 5 police officers were wounded when Fretilin followers reacted to the CNRT’s decision to constitute a government without Fretilin’s support. While these incidents have been subject of a heated debate among experts on the causes of the violence (relayed by the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network website), they shed light on a certain number of statebuilding challenges for the future government of Timor-Leste.

Former president José Ramos-Horta at a campaign in Dili, July 2012. Photo credit: Janina M Pawelz

Former president José Ramos-Horta at a campaign in Dili, July 2012. Photo credit: Janina M Pawelz

First, the chasm between Fretilin and the CNRT is not new. After being placed under direct international administration between 1999 and 2002 (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor – UNTAET), Timor-Leste’s statebuilding process suffered an important setback in 2006, with the collapse of its security institutions amidst political manipulation of these institutions by rivaling parties – the CNRT and Fretilin. The East Timorese National Police (PNTL) was progressively militarized by the then-minister of interior, Rogerio Lobato, close to Mari Alkatiri, leader of Fretilin, who decided to turn the police force into a security institution to compete with the Gusmão-controlled Timorese Lorosae Defence Forces (F–FDTL). The country, once a “success story” for the UN, suddenly became branded as a failed state by the international community. In this context, the UN was forced back in the country in 2006 through the set-up of the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), in order to give enough time for the PNTL to be restructured effectively, and for training and mentoring to take place. However, the political and security challenges are still present. All the effort deployed by the UN leadership to induce the Timorese officials to reduce their political involvement over the PNTL has been largely ineffective. This is worrisome, considering the fact that it was one of the major causes of the 2006 crisis. If the UN has been fairly successful in restoring stability and order in Timor-Leste, it fell short of effectively assisting the statebuilding process in the country.

Inked finger after election. Photo credit: Janina M Pawelz

Inked finger after election. Photo credit: Janina M Pawelz

On the economic front, the statebuilding challenges for the newest Asian country were – and still are – numerous. The territory was already one of the poorest areas in Southeast Asia before 1999, with an estimated GDP per capita of US$431 in 1996. The 1999 conflict led to further declining of approximately 40 to 45% of the GDP in 1999, while the estimated GDP per capita in 1999 was in the range of US$337. Furthermore, prior to the 1999 referendum, Timor-Leste was heavily dependent on external transfers, with approximately 85 per cent of recurrent and capital expenditure coming from Indonesia. If economic growth has been impressive following the intervention, it was driven largely by the infusion of spending by UN personnel. Non-oil GDP fell in 2002 and 2003, and may have grown by only 2 per cent in 2004. However, non-oil per capita incomes have increased from an average of US$ 398 in 2007 to US$ 599 in 2009, and the percentage of the population living in poverty has been estimated to have fallen from 49.9% in 2007 to 41% in 2009, showing economic improvements in Timor-Leste (UNDP 2011).  The economic challenges are nevertheless immense: Timor-Leste ranked 152nd out of 162 countries for which Human Development Index were calculated in 1999, and still ranks at 147th out of 187 countries in 2011. In this context, and as Max Lane pointed out, the Gusmão government implanted a number of policies that were highly popular, and that outweighed alleged claims of mismanagement and corruption, including old-age pensions, free maternal care, wages for village heads, pensions for veterans of the guerrilla struggle and a 30% subsidy on the price of rice (Lane 2012). These policies certainly helped the CNRT win a strong share of the vote in the last elections.

In this context, and despite ongoing security concerns highlighted by the recent incidents, “more UN control, more UN police and more time cannot fix the problem” (International Crisis Group 2009).  In fact, as Gil Della-Giacoma pointed out, “the problems of 2002 are very similar to those of 2010, but the obstacles are greater after ten years of such ‘assistance’.” The recent violence did not seem to modify the UN’s scheduled withdrawal, with Ban Ki-Moon praising the Timorese institutions for their handling of the election. This is a helpful development, since while the statebuilding challenges in Timor-Leste are huge, the next steps in the process will have to be made by Timorese themselves.

Photos courtesy of Janina M Pawelz via, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *