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Working Paper n.º 44
East Timor, Democracy and State Building

22 | 02 | 2010
Carlos Gaspar

Presented at the Workshop: «East-Timor – Looking Back, Challenges Ahead», February 20th 2010, Oxford. Organized by Instituto Camões Centre at Oxford and the Department of International Development, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University.

The origins of East Timorese democratization are to be found in three successive “moments” prior to the proclamation of independence of the territory by the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, on May 20, 2002.

The first “moment” had to do with the failure of the political and ideological model of the national liberation movements which became “Marxist-Leninist” parties in the late seventies. Most of the national liberation movements in the former Portuguese African colonies followed that model, namely Frelimo and the MPLA. Under the MPLA and Frelimo, Angola and Mozambique were the two most important supporters of East Timor’s independence and of Fretilin (Independent East Timor Revolutionary Front). The Fretilin leadership in East Timor also decided that the East Timor national liberation movement should become a “Marxist-Leninist” party. This decision contributed not only to the further isolation of Fretilin, but also confirmed the propaganda arguments of its enemies describing the East Timorese main nationalist party as a communist organization. In the late eighties, facing the retreat of the Soviet Union and Cuba and anticipating the demise of the European communist regimes, both the MPLA and Frelimo went back to their former political identities as nationalist parties. The ruling parties in Angola and Mozambique no longer claimed to be “Marxist-Leninist”, and the MPLA and Frelimo were quick to recognize the new balance of power and the ascendancy of democracy in international politics. As the Cold War ended, the MPLA and Frelimo described themselves as democratic parties and once again, their lead was to be followed by Fretilin and the East Timorese nationalist movement.

The adoption a new democratic identity was critical to Fretilin’s survival in East Timor. The decision made by Xanana Gusmão and the Fretilin National Conference in 1981, establishing Fretilin as a “Marxist-Leninist” party had been criticized from the very beginning by some of the commanders of Falintil, the military branch of the nationalist front. In addition, the ideological radicalization of Fretilin cut it off from the East Timorese Catholic Church, an indispensable ally of the nationalist movement. In 1988, Xanana Gusmão reversed his former decision and left Fretilin, proclaiming his attachment to the values of pluralist democracy in order to restore the external credibility of the East Timorese nationalist movement and to close ranks with the Catholic Church in a common front against the brutal Indonesian occupation. This led to the rapprochement between Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) with both parties joining in the formation of a National Council of the Maubere Resistance (CNRM). Later, together with the leadership inside the territory, the exiled leadership, including José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s Secretary-General, and Mário Carrascalão, the historical leader of UDT and a former Indonesian Governor of East Timor, created the National Council of the Timorese Resistance (CNRT), with Xanana Gusmão, imprisoned in Jakarta, as its President. The CNRT proclaimed its will to establish a pluralist democracy in independent East Timor. The democratic programme of the CNRT become the cement of a broad coalition of East Timorese forces, it allowed the Catholic Church to come closer to the nationalist movement and it proved crucial to broaden the international appeal of the East Timor cause. In addition, it brought the Timorese nationalists closer to the Indonesian democratic movement.

The second “moment” was the August 30, 1999 referendum organized by the United Nations, the first step in the formal process leading to independence. After Suharto’s resignation, in May 1998, both the United Nations and most of the East Timorese leaders seemed ready and willing to accept autonomy within a democratic Indonesia. In the tripartite negotiations between the UN, Indonesia and Portugal, the Indonesian side was prepared to accept a very liberal autonomy statute for East Timor – one that could become a dangerous precedent for other parts of Indonesia. After President Habibie decided in December 1998 that the East Timorese had to make their choice between integration or independence, the Indonesian and most of the East Timorese leadership were ready to accept a “consultation” by the UN. Its representatives were to take into account the views of the main political, traditional and religious leaders before the decision on East Timor’s future status was finally taken. However, within the framework of the tripartite negotiations in New York, Portugal was not ready to dispense with the principle of democratic consultation – “one man, one vote”, according to the formula the Portuguese Foreign Minister used to explain the meaning of a “democratic consultation” to his Indonesian counterpart. This was in line with Portugal’s long standing position in favour of a democratic process of self-determination in East Timor.

The New York May 5, 1990 agreement charged the United Nations with the task of organizing a referendum on self-determination in East Timor in August 1999, to be held after the Indonesian general election but before the election of the new President. The Security Council established the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) to accomplish that task. The democratic referendum in East Timor was the founding act of the new state, engaging the United Nations, as well as Portugal and Indonesia, in the creation of an independent East Timor.

The third “moment” was the outcome of the formal process of state building as established by the UNSG Special Representative and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). This process envisaged the accession to independence, on May 20, 2002, preceded by two elections. The direct election of a constituent assembly, which would become the national parliament at the time of independence, and the direct election of the President of the Republic after the adoption of the national constitution by the UN Transitional Administrator, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Again, in a unique case of self-determination under the UN, democracy – the free election of the main political institutions - took precedence over independence. The first state created by the direct intervention of the UN transitional authorities that ruled East Timor for more than two years between 1999 and 2002, was and had to be an example of the triumph of democracy and its values.

Seven years later, East Timor is yet to be considered a consolidated democracy or a stable state. There seems to be three major obstacles standing in the way of democratic state building in East Timor.

Firstly, there is no democratic political tradition or culture in East Timor. The Portuguese colonial regime and Indonesia’s military occupation were oppressive regimes that did not respect much less did they foster the rule of law, human rights or political pluralism. The UN transitional regime itself was a kind of dictatorship, in the sense that the UN Administrator who was exclusively accountable to the UNSC concentrated all powers – executive, legislative and judicial.

The East Timorese constitutional regime institutionalized a formula of power sharing among the three main actors of the resistance – Xanana Gusmão, President of CNRT, José Ramos-Horta, Vice-President of CNRT, and Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s Secretary-General. In addition, it began by imposing the democratic rule of a single party as Fretilin opposed a national unity government and concentrated power in Parliament and in Government after electing 55 of 88 deputies in the first national assembly. Xanana Gusmão dissolved the CNRT, where Fretilin was the main stakeholder, and was elected President of the Republic by a coalition of lesser parties with the support of the Catholic Church. Mari Alkatiri became Prime Minister and majority leader, with Ramos-Horta serving as Foreign Minister in the Fretilin Government.

The initial formula proved to be unstable and led to successive crises opposing the President and the Catholic Church to the Fretilin Government, which were the source of the divisions in the security apparatus, after the UN military mission withdrew from East Timor in June 2005. In March 2006, violent clashes involving former soldiers of the FDTL (East Timor Defence Forces) and members of the National Police against FDTL units escalated and led to the return of foreign troops. This allowed the President of the Republic to force the resignation of Mari Alkatiri in June 2006, who was replaced by José Ramos-Horta until the next election. In August, the UN peacekeeping forces returned to East Timor under the United Nations Integrated Mission (UNMIT). In June 2007, after electing Ramos-Horta as President, Xanana Gusmão formed a coalition of lesser parties and secured a new majority in the National Parliament, although Fretilin under Mari Alkatiri won a plurality of the vote. The former President became Prime Minister and leader of the new majority, but again the new coalition concentrated power in order to rule East Timor with little regard for the rights of the opposition. Mari Alkatiri refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new Government, claiming that Fretilin, as the single largest party, albeit without a majority in the National Parliament, should have been called upon to form a Government. The democratic choice of the East Timorese political elites, without which they would have been unable to lead East Timor towards independence, remained superficial at the best of times and it has not withstood the trials of power and state building.

Secondly, the semi-presidentialist regime established by the East Timor Constitution has proved to be a permanent factor of instability. Until the 1999 referendum there was a consensus among the resistance leaders, including Fretilin, in favour of a presidential regime, following the CNRT institutional model under Xanana Gusmão. This would have institutionalized the revolutionary legitimacy of Xanana Gusmão, the pluralism of political parties and the spirit of unity and reconciliation, which was still needed to consolidate independence and concentrate on state building.

The consensus came to en end with the dissolution of the CNRT, one year after the self-determination referendum, and the election of the constituent assembly, on August 30, 2001. Xanana Gusmão was no longer the undisputed national leader and his allies of the new Social-Democratic Party (PSD) under Mário Carrascalão, and of the Democratic Party (PD), representing the younger generation of resistance leaders, were defeated in the national elections, when Fretilin won a majority of the vote and of the seats in the constituent assembly. Mari Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta, as well as Sérgio Vieira de Mello and the UNTAET, did not want a “Xanana Republic” and thus opposed a presidential regime. The “UNTAET Constitution” adopted by the Fretilin majority and approved by the SRSG established a semi-presidentalist regime, which allowed for the direct election of the President but left him with few powers to control a majority Government[1]. Notwithstanding, against the best hopes of his rivals, Xanana Gusmão stood for election. In April 2002, the former President of the CNRT became the first President of the Republic.

The conflict between the President and the Prime Minister was all but inevitable. Four years later, Xanana Gusmão was able to force the resignation of Mari Alkatiri and, in 2007, the charismatic leader of East Timor became Prime Minister, after electing José Ramos-Horta as President in his stead.

The democratic and constitutional foundations of the East Timorese state created the political and institutional conditions, which made for a permanent conflict between the principal actors of the independence struggle. All efforts to bring together President Xanana Gusmão and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri were to no avail, and it was vain to think that Fretilin would be able to resist the ascendancy of Xanana Gusmão when he was widely recognized by the East Timorese as the founding father of the new nation. The crisis leading to the demise of the Fretilin government could have opened the way for a constitutional amendment and to the establishment of a presidential regime. On the other hand, the President could form his own party and lead it victory in the general elections, thus resorting to the democratic vote to change the nature of the regime. Instead, Xanana Gusmão chose to abandon his natural role as President and become Prime Minister and majority leader in order to be able to exercise power.

Thirdly, the frailty of state institutions is a permanent obstacle to the consolidation of democracy. In East Timor, the state does not have the means to control internal security effectively and can do little to enforce its sovereignty and protect the border with Indonesia. In addition, the 2006 crisis demonstrated that neither the FDTL, nor the National Police were ready to fulfil their security functions. In the absence of those basic conditions, it is almost impossible to consolidate a democratic regime: pluralist democracy can only take root under the rule of law, within the framework of a state.

This is not a specific problem of the East Timor case. The same issue also arises in Bosnia Herzegovina or in Kosovo, as well as in Afghanistan or Iraq, to mention but those countries where internal security would immediately collapse if the international peacekeeping forces were to leave.

In East Timor, the security problem was there from the beginning. The absence of an international military force under UNAMET is inseparable from the escalation of violence immediately after the referendum of August 1999, forcing the UNSC to speed up the deployment of an Intervention Force (INTERFET) led by Australia. In the following years, UNTAET kept a significant military force in East Timor, with operational units coming from Australia, Portugal and other countries. However, the gradual withdrawal of those forces became inevitable following the UN proclamation of independence in May 2002.

The very success of the East Timorese UN-led transition seemed to render superfluous an international military presence – or, to put it in another way, the need to maintain a peacekeeping mission in East Timor underlined the limitations of the UN success. The East Timorese leadership themselves were not opposed to the departure of the foreign troops and seemed convinced that FDTL and the National Police would be ready to take up their duties and able to enforce internal security.

Portugal and Australia did not share this perception. The two countries delayed the ending of the peacekeeping mission for as long as they could without seeming keen on having a permanent military presence in East Timor. Nevertheless, they were of two minds about the structure of East Timorese security. Australia wanted East Timor to rely on a strong constabulary in a state without armed forces, as in any case, they would not be able to defend the territory against their strongest neighbours. This formula was implemented in numerous smaller island states in the South Pacific with a measure of success. Portugal wanted the Falintil to reform and regroup in order to create a credible and professional East Timor Defence Force, responsible for external security, with the National Police taking charge of internal security. Obviously, the restructuring of the security forces would be a slow and difficult process, but Portugal felt that international peacekeeping forces should stay in East Timor for the duration. The lessons of the Balkans showed the need for a long period of international control of East Timor’s security.

The Portuguese formula was probably closer to the needs of East Timor. In 2006, internal violence escalated after the retreat of external UN forces. The Australian military had to come back to restore order and a new (non-military) peacekeeping mission was sent over later that year. The UNSC, as well as the East Timorese leadership, should accept that an international peacekeeping mission will be needed for many years to come.

Until then, East Timor will remain torn by its dilemma. In order to fulfil the high expectations of the international community East Timor must be a democracy but it can only be a democracy under the permanent presence of an international peacekeeping force.

[1] The United Nations transitional authorities made different choices in Cambodia and Afghanistan installing a parliamentary system in Phnom Penh and a presidential system in Kabul. To date, there seems to be no firm doctrine of the United Nations on this important matter.

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