As the counting of votes drags on for East Timor’s parliamentary elections, it is becoming clear that the ruling Fretilin party will have its numbers cut by around half. While Fretilin appears to have improved slightly from its showing in the recent presidential polls, the emerging outcome represents a resounding defeat.
East Timor’s likely new government will be a coalition led by former president Xanana Gusmao, heading the Council of National Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). Along with the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), the Democratic Party (PD) and possibly other smaller parties, this coalition should form a comfortable majority in parliament.
Despite earlier localized incidents, the elections were very largely free of violence and intimidation, and mark an important step in East Timor’s political consolidation. Not only is a new ‘government of national unity’ likely to return a greater sense of calm to East Timor following last year’s breakdown of security, but it marks an important step in the country’s evolving political life.
As a recently independent post-colonial state, East Timor is in the process of making a remarkable transition towards becoming a consolidated democracy. The history of most other post-colonial states has been that, with the expectations of independence so high and the capacity to deliver on them so low, to quell political unrest, governments have generally turned authoritarian and, at least initially, abandoned the democratic process.
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In the lead-up to the events of last year, it appeared that East Timor was beginning to take a turn towards authoritarianism under the leadership of the ruling Fretilin party dominated by expatriates from the so-called ‘Maputo group’ who had largely spent their exile in Mozambique. However, following a direct challenge to his leadership, Mari Alkatiri stepped down as prime minister, former foreign minister and now president Jose Ramos-Horta assumed the leadership, and the country moved towards the recent scheduled elections.
East Timor continues to face many serious challenges, including being one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, a legacy of traumatic violence and colonial neglect, and the sometimes ambivalent contributions of the international community, not least including Australia.
However, with the success of these elections, unlike most other post-colonial states, East Timor is proving that consolidating democracy is not determined by its other circumstances.
Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University was in-country coordinator of the Victorian Local Governance Association observer mission to East Timor’s recent elections. The VLGA was the largest international group observing the parliamentary vote.