East Timor goes to its fourth parliamentary elections tomorrow in a process that for many observers describe as the consolidation of its young democracy. East Timor has done a remarkable job of building its democratic processes, not least from its near meltdown of 2006-07.

But the idea that a democratic process can be “consolidated”, i.e. “locked in”, assumes that the inherent fragility of democratic processes can somehow be permanently guaranteed. In short, it cannot. A commonly agreed political process is a relatively recent political phenomenon and one that has not worked especially well outside of a handful of countries.

East Timor is now widely regarded as the most democratic country in south-east Asia. At one level, that is a remarkable achievement. At another, however, if a small country that is a child of the international community cannot be succeed at upholding that community’s most cherished convention, then the international community has truly failed.

What is remarkable is that the international community largely left East Timor after its 2012 elections, which were generally peaceful and otherwise quite successful. Since then East Timor has shown that it is quite adept at running its own elections.

Funnily enough, for a country that (putting it mildly) does not quite set benchmarks for organisational efficiency, East Timor does elections very well. Its electoral commission (divided into two functional units) is perhaps the most professional outfit in the country and not so long ago enjoyed the privilege of sending electoral assistance to the African state of Guinea-Bissau.   

One part of the electoral embrace has been the proliferation, almost churn, of political parties. In 2018, 21 parties are contesting the parliamentary elections.

There are some minor ideological or procedural differences between the parties, but their key distinctions revolve around personalities and, in a couple of cases, what amounts to historical vendettas. In East Timor, history resonates and actual or perceived betrayals continue to inform some political allegiances.   

[For East Timor, maritime boundary is not about oil. It’s about pride.]

Most political efforts are, however, quixotic. Perhaps five of the 21 parties will achieve enough votes to gain representation in the 65 seat unicameral parliament. Parties that receive less than 4% of the vote are automatically excluded, meaning that those that achieve above four per cent benefit from the exclusion of the most minor parties.

Even with five, or maybe four, parties holding representation in parliament, it will be difficult for any one party to obtain a majority in its own right. A post-election parliamentary alliance, which has marked the last three iterations of government here, is again likely.

Many other developing countries that have faced numerous difficulties across a range of fronts and have therefore veered away from “oppositional” politics. This has sometimes led to authoritarianism or “dominant party” politics.

East Timor does not appear to be headed towards an authoritarian form of government, but tomorrow’s elections will have to distribute votes widely if the country is to retain an opposition that can hold the government to account and act as its shadow.

In any case, no matter the outcome of the elections and which parties form government in what arrangement, the increasingly pressing challenge the new government will have to face is that of high expenditure set against a declining income. East Timor has relied almost entirely on revenues from Timor Sea oil, but those oil wells are starting to run dry.

The great hope has been pinned on the Greater Sunrise liquid natural gas field, which East Timor reasonably claims falls entirely within what should be its international waters. Under a 2002 agreement with Australia, however, any revenues from the field, should it ever reach development, will be split 50-50.

The 50-50 agreement, and the lack of an international boundary under which it was achieved, is currently a matter of international arbitration. Should Australia have a future change of government, it is now Labor’s policy to agree to a permanent maritime boundary, essentially granting East Timor its Timor Sea claims.

[Our land is girt by oil-rich sea … that we steal from East Timor]

This might, however, be too little, too late. An agreement on a maritime boundary and ownership of resources might produce less income than once expected, and much later than will likely be needed. As with most democracies, such success they have achieved has been largely underwritten by economic stability.

For now, East Timor is enjoying the full blush of competitive politics. There is much enthusiasm, noise, colour and a sense that this contest is at least, in part, a colourful sport. And it is.

But once the democratic party is over, the new government will have to start to come to terms with a challenging economic future. Hard, new economic reality will start to bite, in the next government term or certainly the one after that.

East Timor’s democratic embrace continues to be one worth celebrating. The question remains, however, whether it will remain sustainable in the face of declining incomes and, potentially, food shortages.

The East Timor government, along with the international community, are indulging in just a little bit of self-congratulation at the success of the country’s current political process. There is, of course, much to be happy about.

But to suggest that East Timor’s democracy is “consolidated” or somehow a permanent feature of the political landscape might reflect a blinkered understanding of what it takes to retain a viable democracy.

*Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University and co-ordinator of the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission