Avelino Coelho da Silva after the vote, Dili July 7 2012.
Avelino Coelho da Silva, Bosco and Didina Dili July 7 2012.

Last Saturday evening I was driving around the polling booths to the north of Dili with Avelinho Coelho da Silva, the President of the Partido Socialista de Timor (the PST). Avelino turns to me and says, “Comrade, even if we lose we win.”

We drive on into the falling night to catch the count at the town-based booths at schools in Bidau, Licidere and Bemori then to the “marginal” booths at Tasi Tolu and Tibar at the foot of the mountains east of the city.

At the time I thought these were the thought-out-loud musings of a party president staring another failure at the polls in the face. Now, four days, an ocean and country away, I can see the logic in Avelino’s reasoning.

Well after dark we are back in the Dili stronghold of Fretilin at Comoro where we stumble across an unlit rubbled schoolyard to watch the pink-shirted counters hold up each long, brightly coloured vote paper to show the voter’s intention, followed by a loud shout of the number of the party before the vote is laid back on the pile of votes for each party.

At school tables before the election staff sit the party scrutineers. Outside the rooms hundreds crowd around the open louvred windows, keeping tally, drawing early conclusions, exchanging news and gossip from other booths.

Welcome to democracy, Timor-Leste style.

The PST didn’t win any of the eighty-eight seats in the Timor-Leste Parliamentary elections this past Saturday but on my reckoning the PST, despite their apparent failures, are one of the biggest winners of this third election in this newest of countries.

If the PST can maintain the momentum of the past five years – and there are few reasons to doubt that – it looks set to be a considerable force in Timor-Leste’s future.

Counting the vote, Timor-Leste style. July 2012

For the Australian media the 2012 Timor-Leste Parliamentary elections barely rated a blip on the radar, and not even the discovery of fifty two bodies in a mass grave in the grounds of the Palacio Do Governo (not as has been reported in the backyard of Xanana Gusmao’s home), could raise the hacks from their slumber. There were no riots, disturbances or outrages to prompt a last-minute rush to gloat.

The 2012 campaign was, as Damien Kingsbury noted in Crikey on Monday, wholly uncontroversial and:

… were run smoothly, if not flawlessly, and the conduct of the elections was marred only by minor technical issues. The polls were well attended, with 73% of registered voters attending. Due to anomalies on the registration system, it is estimated the real voter turnout rate was above 80%. What now looks to be a pattern in Timor-Leste’s politics is, in difficult conditions, the commitment of voters to the electoral process. Equally, what increasingly appears clear is that the voters here will shift their vote based on who they think best represents their interests, as opposed to some blind tribal loyalty. But, as 2007 showed, they are prepared to change their vote depending on performance,

Finally, while there has been much development in Timor-Leste since independence, little has changed for many people outside Dili. Increasing rural development is critical if the majority of Timor-Leste’s people are to be lifted out of grinding poverty.

While many – the World Bank, the IMF and the UN included – see Timor-Leste’s future as a newly-cast neo-liberal state driven by the exploitation of its natural resources others, including Avelino Coelho da Silva, see Timor-Leste’s future cast in a very different mould.

Partido Socialista de Timor party headquaerters
Partido Socialista de Timor party headquaerters

The PST has learnt its lessons from the 2007 elections, where it failed to retain the one seat it won in the 2001 Constitutient Assembly election. The day before this year’s election Avelino told me of the substantial re-organisation and expansion of the PST and that in the lead-up to the 2012 election the Partido Socialista de Timor:

… only had party structures in 5 sucos (villages). Now in 2012 the PST has bases in 198 sucos. We have a National Congress that meets every four years, we have a Central Committee of the party that meets every six months and the Politburo, the Political Commission – the central committee members who build up the party structure. We have five hundred and twenty five committees based in the sucos – a very big difference between 2007 and 2012. For these elections we have two thousand members of the brigades that distribute material through the sucos.

We have introduced a new method. Most of the parties here have no connection with the people that vote for them. Our brigade members go to every household in the sucos to present the PST political platform and we make a political contract with every household that wants to sign up. So had twenty-eight thousand families that made the contract with the PST. So if each family votes we will get more than fifty-nine thousand votes – if they all vote for us (laughs).

Well, on Saturday the 7th of June not all of those families did vote for the PST.

Tama Laka Aquita at the Bemori polling place, 7 July 2012.

In 2007 the PST attracted 3,982 votes in the parliamentary election that saw it run twelfth of the fourteen parties. It received 0.96% of the total vote, a long way from the 3% threshold needed to gain a seat under the modified D’Hont system used in Timor-Leste.

In 2012, according to preliminary figures, the PST received 11,379 votes, 2.41% of the total vote and just over 2,700 votes short of the quota of 14,142 votes required to claim a seat. In 2012 PST has more than doubled its vote and now ranks sixth out of the twenty-one parties that contested the poll. Only one other party stood between the PST and the four parties that reached the quota.

This points to a fundamental flaw in the D’Hont system used in Timor-Leste that favours the larger parties to the detriment of the smaller. In this election 20% of votes – more than 94,000 – were cast for parties that didn’t meet the 3% threshold and were effectively wasted. Without the threshold, the allocation would have seen ten parties get seats in the new parliament – including the PST with one seat. There are compelling arguments for the threshold to be abandoned, or perhaps better lowered to say, 2% to allow for better representation from smaller parties.

While the PST won’t have a seat in the new Parliament, it is expected that Avelino will retain his position as Secretary of State for Energy Politics where he has actively promoted renewable energy use – particularly for rural areas where most of the estimated 85% of Timorese who have no reticulated power live. He is working on a new law to mandate and promote the use of renewables, particularly solar, wind and hydro power.

Avelino and voter, Dili. July 2012.

Avelino explained the rationale of a policy that is apparently unpopular with at least some of the  powerful external agencies and sponsors that still wield much power in his country:

For every household we will provide enough power to be self-sustainable by using a small solar system on the top of each house for home use. We believe that each household should be subsidised if they are connected to the grid – unless they use it to produce goods commercially.

Individual families in the sucos only need about 100 watts and it is proposed that any excess can be sold back into the national grid. This way the people can sell sell their power to the state – not the people having to buy power from the state.

With hydro-power and other power systems below 2 megawatts – they should be owned by local cooperatives. From 2 megawatts to 25 megawatts I think that there should be a mix of ownership between the private sector and the state. Above 25 megawatts – those facilities should be put out to public tender.

One very good reason to introduce renewable energy is to reduce Timor-Leste’s dependence on imported oil and gas. The money from oil and gas development should be invested in the development of fisheries, agriculture and rural industries.

Avelino Coelho da Silva, PST President. Dili, July 2012.

This led Avelino to the vexed subject of what to do with the $11 billion in petroluem funds washing around in offshore banks. He wonders whether Timor-Leste will be condemned to the status of a mendicant state for longer than need be:

For us, we wonder why we only use 3% of the sustainable income from that fund. Why not 10%, why not 50%?

We think that this policy was established to force Timor-Leste to be dependent and to have to borrow money. This is the classic case of global capitalism – to make the poorest countries dependent.

People tell me that we need to save that money for the next generation. Well, let me give you an example.

In Timor-Leste we have about 298,000 families. Let us assume that 150,000 – half – of them that are poor. Poor by Timorese standards, not just the standard of a rich country like Australia.

We may be saving money for the next generation but now is it not too hard to take that money to free the 150,000 families from poverty?

Think of it this way. Each year most, we will say 100,000, of those poorest families will have another mouth to feed. So after another twenty years of saving this money for the next generation, how many more mouths will there be to feed?

The idea of saving this money for the “next generation” is a big problem when all we are doing is condemning that generation to even greater poverty.

The PST proposes that 50% of the sustainable oil revenue be invested in agriculture and the rural economy to create jobs and economic activities. For this generation.

People say that Timor-Leste is fighting to become the world’s best oil income manager – but behind us thousands of people are crying for food.

The PST says we shouldn’t be the best at managing our oil income – but be the best at making sure that people have food in their house and that they have money for their health and the education of  their children.

I asked Avelino about the call – for some it is a mantra – that what Timor-Leste needed most was “roads, roads, roads.

What is the use of good roads to rural people if they have no increased means of production?

Only the people in the towns would benefit. They already have good four-wheel drive cars and can go anywhere.

The poorest people only come to Dili maybe once a year. The first thing that must be done is to build up rural production through collectivisation.

Look at rice for example. During the (Indonesian) occupation Timor-Leste was self-sufficient in rice. We have nearly 175,000 ha of rice paddies. But now we import 100% of our rice. That is 100,000 tonnes at $US400 a tonne – $40 million that goes straight out of the country when it should be staying here.

Avelino then turned to the status of Timor-Leste as an independent sovereign state:

In political terms we are independent – we have our own flag, our own constitution and legal system and make our own political decisions.

But we do have to submit to the decisions of others, so in that sense we are not independent.

We do what other people want us to do, not what we want to do.

Avelino and the PST may not have won any seats last Saturday but it is clear that we’ll be seeing them at the polls again in 2017.


For more information on political events in Timor-Leste see the very informative La’o Hamutuk site. As noted on its website, “La’o Hamutuk (Walking Together in English) is a Timor-Leste non-governmental organization that monitors, analyzes, and reports on the principal international institutions present in Timor-Leste as they relate to the physical, economic, and social reconstruction and development of the country.

La’o Hamutuk believes that the people of Timor-Leste must be the ultimate decision-makers in this process and that this process should be democratic and transparent.

La’o Hamutuk is an independent organization and works to facilitate effective Timorese participation, to improve communication between the international community and Timorese society, to provide resources on alternative development models, and to facilitate links between Timorese groups and groups abroad.

An increasingly important agency in Timor-Leste is the Comissão Anti-Corrupção ( aka Komisaun Anti-Korrupsaun; Anti-Corruption Commission of Timor-Leste).

At the Commission’s website the Anti-Corruption Commissioner Adérito de Jesus Soares says that “Corruption destroys the very foundation of society. Corruption does not distinguish between small or large, rich or poor nations. Corruption wrecks our children’s future. It is an obstacle to the progress of the young; and it hastens the death of the elderly. Corruption also hinders the rule of law; and threatens democracy. It is time for all Timorese to join hands in the fight against corruption, as corruption can destroy the dreams of all who fought for Timor over so many decades.

Finally, the fourth estate in Timor-Leste is represented by the useful voice of the CJITL – Centru Jornalista Investigativu Timor Leste. The website is in Portugese (tell me if you can find one in English) and they have a Facebook presence here. Timor NewsNet is also worth a look.