For the people of Timor Leste, there was a lot more at stake in the 7 July parliamentary elections than simply the party they chose to govern for the next five years. If the process was successful and there was acceptance of the results, it would mark a level of political maturity and stability vital for the country to tackle the huge development challenges it faces.
For the international community, a successful election would confirm that after a false start seven years earlier, the UN would be able finally to pack up and go home, confident that the new country was in shape to determine its own destiny.
We were in Timor Leste to observe the end of the campaign, election day and its immediate aftermath. Five New Zealand parliamentarians from four parties, we participated in both a bi-lateral New Zealand team and an Asean Regional Forum group, marking its first role in a political process of this nature.
For me personally, it was my tenth visit to a country which 37 years earlier had been subject to a brutal invasion and occupation. This had resulted in an estimated loss of life of up to 200,000. The world had left the people of East Timor to their fate with many countries including ours effectively complicit or turning a blind eye to what had occurred.
In 1999 I was part of a Unamet observation team. That year East Timor’s people decisively voted for independence, only to have the country torched and hundreds more murdered by militias wanting to maintain Indonesian control. An estimated 70 per cent of buildings were destroyed.
Internal divisions continued after independence. In 2006, eight police officers were massacred in Dili. The following year there were attempted killings of the President and Prime Minister. For several years tens of thousands lived in Internally Displaced Persons camps as refugees, fearful of returning to their homes.
By contrast on this visit for the first time I saw a community going about its day-to-day business without conflict, instability and fear. Timor Leste, by any standards, remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Families which on average have seven children, struggle to meet their health and education needs. It is hard to see where jobs will come from for the huge number of children when they leave school.
Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. New buildings are going up, though many are public offices like the Presidential palace, Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministries built entirely by Chinese workers and money rather than schools and hospitals. There are many more cars and motorcycles leading to congestion in Dili. Electric power is being reticulated across the country. More money is becoming available from the $10.4 billion in Timor Leste’s oil trust account fund.
There is, by popular consensus, a strong desire by people in Timor Leste to go forward and not to return to the conflicts of the past.
Politicians have generally acknowledged this and a peace pact was agreed between political parties not to allow campaigning to degenerate into conflict. In both the two rounds of the Presidential contest in March and April this year and in the July parliamentary elections campaigning was vigorous but by and large carried out peacefully.
Organisation of the elections this year was for the first time conducted by the Timorese themselves rather than the UN.
Our strong conclusion was that the polling process was properly conducted. The election was a free and fair expression of democratic will. The result can be relied upon as an accurate reflection of popular opinion.
There are issues still to be addressed. There are no rules on transparency for example around campaign donations and spending. But the process of the elections themselves were impartial and credible. This is an exceptional achievement by a new nation born out of violence, and stands in contrast to the Commonwealth election observers report recently on the same process in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
The absence of electoral fraud is important. It reduced the prospects of parties which were unsuccessful claiming the result is unreliable and resorting to violence.
Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT party won the biggest share of the vote at 37 per cent. Fretilin came second with 30 per cent and will likely remain in Opposition.
This will be a blow to Fretilin supporters who saw Fretilin’s role in the Independence struggle as giving that Party an entitlement to govern. The key challenge and test of Timor Leste’s political maturity will be whether the losing party accepts the result without resort to violence. Despite rumours circulating in the capital, this so far has not happened. However, it remains a risk in the weeks ahead as a new coalition government is negotiated and then sworn in.
For the international community, a successful outcome from the election process will be welcome especially for the United Nations which has invested heavily in the country for thirteen years. Positive stories for UN international efforts in this field are in short supply.
For New Zealand too, seeing Timor Leste on a positive path to stability and development for its people will be a good dividend after more than a decade of commitment to this cause.
At its peak, New Zealand deployed a battalion of soldiers (830 personnel) and over 35 police officers on the ground, as well as a significant commitment from government and NGOs to Timor Leste’s development. Around 70 New Zealand soldiers and 17 police remain in Timor Leste.
The warm response from Timorese to the Kiwi emblem on the uniforms of New Zealand personnel is a demonstration of their high regard for our people. We can be proud of that.
By the end of this year, in the absence of any cataclysmic event, the more than 3000-strong UN operation and the Australia and New Zealand International Security Force should be able to wind up.
Bi-lateral support, in New Zealand’s case assistance in community policing, the military assistance programme and development, will continue.
The people of Timor Leste, who suffered so much in their struggle for independence, will finally be in control of their own country and its future.