Transcript: Understanding East Timor's 2022 Presidential Elections

Intro [00:00:07]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Duncan McCargo [00:00:24]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast podcast. I'm Duncan McCargo. I'm director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. We open today's podcasts with some sounds of election campaigning from the ongoing presidential elections in Timor-Leste, East Timor. It's my great pleasure to be joined today by Amber Voortman. She is a master's student in the Department of Political Science here, also at the University of Copenhagen, and she's currently in Dili, in Timor-Leste, or East Timor, where this month's presidential election is a pivotal development in the country's post-conflict democratisation process. And Amber has had an opportunity to spend time talking to a lot of people, observing what's happening there during the election. So we'll be doing a couple of podcasts with her this month, focusing on that election and drawing on the observations that she's been able to make during her time in this rather little visited Southeast Asian country. Amber, you're there in Dili at the moment in Timor-Leste, and I know there's a very important election about to take place. Can you tell us something about the significance of this year's presidential election?

Amber Woortman [00:01:40]

Yeah, so I am in Dili at the moment in Timor-Leste and this Saturday on the 19th of March there will be a presidential election. And it's an interesting election because it's 20 years after Timor-Leste got independence. So what you can see now is there are for the first time, many candidates. So there are 16 presidential candidates. Right.

Duncan McCargo [00:02:04]

I saw that. That's an amazing number.

Amber Woortman [00:02:07]

Yeah, it's a lot. So usually they have 3 or 6. And now it's been 16. So the campaigning period has started at the 2nd of March. So they have been campaigning a lot throughout the whole country. So you see different rallies and yeah, there's a lot going on now. In Dili, but also in the rest of Timor-Leste as well.

Duncan McCargo [00:02:29]


Amber Woortman [00:02:31]

And what is so special about it? Well, first of all, there haven't been many elections in Timor-Leste yet, Right. So 20 years after independence and what I've seen from the campaign so far is that a lot of the presidential candidates are talking about the current situation in Timor-Leste, which they call a crisis. Obviously, COVID 19 had an impact here on the country as well. And the way the government handled the COVID situation hasn't been proved or received that well by the Timorese. And there is, from what I've been observing, a lot of tensions between political leaders at the moment. And I think from the conversations I had with with people who are going to vote is. That they really demand a change. It's 20 years after independence. And what a lot of people are saying is 20 years after independence and nothing has improved that much. It's still one of the poorest country of the world. And the economic situation here has worsened due to the COVID crisis. So, yeah, from what I've seen now is that people really want a change and they are going to use their vote for that.

Duncan McCargo [00:03:53]

Right. I mean, to give a bit of context. Timor-Leste had a very turbulent emergence into independence. There were a couple of different UN peacekeeping missions there. Many of the people who ran for electoral office in the early years came out of the guerrilla movement, essentially the independence movement that was resisting previous Indonesian rule. So it's been really hard, I understand, to institutionalize any kind of democratic order and a new political framework in the post-independence era.

Amber Woortman [00:04:26]

Yes. So you can see that. Okay. So from 1999 until 2002, there was a transitional administration led by the United Nations. And in 2002, they chose their first president. But the elections following that term resulted in the 2006 political crisis here with an attempted assassination, Ramos-Horta, but also created a lot of political violence within the country due to tensions between the government but also the police and the military. And these tensions are rooted in the resistance era, so to say, between the people who are from the west of East Timor and people are from the east in East Timor and people from the east and East Timor, they see themselves as a true resistance fighters, so to say. So can you see this conflict or this tension between the leaders of the resistance era? You can still feel that now actually, because now it's 20 years after independence and this might be the last election that the political leaders or the leaders from the independence fight and from the resistance era are still able to put. Himself forward as a presidential candidate. So you can see basically you shift between, okay, when are we going to move from a country that is led by the old generation that has been focusing so much on the history of the country and when is that power going to be shifted to the new generation and the future of Timor-Leste, basically.

Duncan McCargo [00:06:07]

Right. Because when I look at news coverage of this election, even though I haven't been following Timor-Leste closely for some years, I see some very familiar sounding names. So as you just mentioned, Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president is and Nobel Peace Prize winner, he's running again. And then you've got Sinan Gusmao, who was also a former president, is likely to be prime minister if Ramos-Horta wins this time. These are really blast from the past. These are the same people who've been around for the past 25 years or so, dominating East Timorese politics. And yet you've got a population where the great majority of people is under 30.

Amber Woortman [00:06:48]

Yeah, that is an interesting thing and that's also what I've been observing here now. Yeah. Shanina Gusmao is the leader of the, of the independence, right? So the Timorese people call him Mount Bolt, which means like Big Brother and they will follow whatever he thinks is good, so to say. And for example, Ramos-Horta is running for president again, but also we see someone else from the past, such as Timor, who was a general of the volunteer. So the Timorese Defence Force, Yes. And the volunteer played a major role in the resistance era. And you don't see young candidates on the ballot list. You do see women. So in that way it's progressive. But the question is, is this the time for the new generation to step up or will the old generation still be in power for the upcoming five years?

Duncan McCargo [00:07:46]

Yeah, I mean, it seems like the answer to that has to be the old generation are hanging in there. Right there. It's all the the leading candidates are these people from that freedom fighter generation. And although we've got another roster of another ten or so candidates with different backgrounds and affiliations, they don't seem to be getting much attention, at least in the international coverage. Is the feeling that the really only a couple of serious candidate in this race?

Amber Woortman [00:08:12]

Well, I think all the 16 presidential candidates have the opportunity to go around the whole country and some rallies are just small, have little attendance, but some rallies are just enormous. And it also differs per district. So, for example, if a presidential candidate is coming from district four, you will see a lot of people going to rally. And so you also notice this kind of connection to where you're coming from. People see the election day, it's a public holiday, so people go home to their families. They will vote and they will spend the whole day at that polling station waiting for the results coming out. It's a kind of cultural thing that is happening. I can understand it because they have fought for so long for the moment to be able to have this right, to be able to vote whoever they want to have in charge.

Duncan McCargo [00:09:11]

Right. Guess I've experienced this too. In some other Southeast Asian context. Huge numbers of people turning out for elections are the people who are turning out for rallies necessarily excited about the particular candidates whose rallies they're attending or they just kind of along for the ride like something is happening and we only get to do this every five years. So we're going to go and have fun and this is going to be a party and a celebration. Is it easy to tell how far participation in these election related events is actually about specific enthusiasm for the candidates or parties that are running?

Amber Woortman [00:09:45]

That's a good question, I would say, because so if you start, for example, from Dili and a presidential candidate has a campaign somewhere of road like three hour drive, the infrastructure here is not good at all, but you'll see the supporters following them in trucks, on motorbikes, with flags, with songs, with, with hats on. It's very festive for me. It's amazing to see this kind of political willpower in it. If you walk around and ask about how people feel about the upcoming election, they will say immediately who they will vote for, right. Or who their party is and they will explain why that is. And some people will say, Yeah, it's because I want change. But some people would also say it's because they fought for our country, so they deserve my vote and my time will come later. So you'll see different reactions. But overall, the rallies have been incredibly happy. And devoted, even though it's rainy season now, we just had heavy rainfall again. But people will stay on the campaigning field and even if it's somewhere very remote, they will come out and support their presidential candidate, especially for the presidential candidates that have a lot of supporters.

Duncan McCargo [00:11:05]

Right. So what you're finding is an incredibly passionate and engaged electorate. It sounds a very far cry from most of Western Europe.

Amber Woortman [00:11:14]

Yes, I'm amazed and also by the young people that are devoted to vote, actually. And of course, some people you speak to on the market might not be able to communicate with me because I don't speak the local language.

Duncan McCargo [00:11:29]


Amber Woortman [00:11:30]

But some people are hesitant to talk about politics or they don't really know about it, or some people cannot explain why they vote for somebody, but just because their family has been voting for it for so long. So you can really see the difference. But overall, the the devotion to vote is just incredible to me.

Duncan McCargo [00:11:53]

And so if you go to some of these relatively remote areas, a few hours drive out of Dili, how many people would show up to an event where one of the leading candidates came to speak?

Amber Woortman [00:12:03]

I've seen campaigns that had maybe 1000 people, but I've also been at campaigns that had 10,000 people attending and that you see drone pictures and yet you don't really realize that so many people were on that field. And it's hard maybe to imagine. But you can imagine that you're just on a field somewhere next to the road, if you even call it a road in between the palm trees. And they just followed the speeches and every presidential candidate has a song. Most of the time this speech is start with a minute of silence for the people who have fought for the country and fought for the independence. And then it starts with general prayer and then the campaign starts. But you can see the excitement building up over the days. So tomorrow is the last day and all the candidates have to stop at 5:00 in the afternoon. Then I have two days of rest and on Saturday, the polling stations will open at 7:00 and the day can begin for them.

Duncan McCargo [00:13:09]

Right. Because it's really a small country, isn't it, for our listeners to understand. We're talking about a country at 1.36 million. It's basically sort of greater Copenhagen size population. I guess this is a society where certainly in terms of the elite, everybody knows everybody else. It's a relatively small world.

Amber Woortman [00:13:28]

Yes, it is a small world. Also. The whole family culture. Right, Everyone? Yes. Each other's sister or brother of. I have so many family members out of the sudden. But this is also what I think makes the election process so special and in general is the community engagement and participation of the youth, but also the aim to include different genders or people with disabilities, people who are living in rural areas. And this is also, I think, a hard part for some aspects of the campaign because the most time the information on the campaigns is distributed through social media. So Facebook, Instagram, TikTok is incredibly huge here and through radio television. But the whole telecom connection here is very poor and it's extremely weak. And if you're in a rural part, you might not even own a phone or have Internet connection or the money to buy electricity because the electricity here is paid as a kind of top-up you pay for the amount you use. And it's one of the countries that has the highest electricity prices as well. You can really see also difference between Delhi, the capital city and the other parts. And I've mentioned before, Bachao Bachao is one of the cities or areas that has been known for rebellion. I think in the early history of the resistance era, the resistance started there and you can see now as well there have been minor incidents here. So far everything is going very peaceful. But in Bachao there has been some conflict at a certain rally. And so my question also was, okay, do you expect any election violence or do you expect any post-election violence? And most of the people say no because they've learned from the past. Also, the 2006 crisis has had a big impact and the candidates are often referring to the 2006 crisis in their speeches. And they feel that they don't want to let that happen again. But at the same time, you see that here in Timor there are martial art groups and those martial art groups are many different ones, but they control some parts of the country as well. And so you can see that during that rally in Bogor, for example, there was tension between two different martial art groups and that resulted in stone throwing and then the killing of a young man. Yeah, these things happen. And I spoken to university students, for example, today, and they are afraid of those martial art groups causing any violence in the post-election period. Many people are part of a martial art group, maybe also part of the culture, and especially young people who are not able to go to university or have a job. Easy for them maybe to be attracted to such a group.

Duncan McCargo [00:16:42]

So these groups provide them with the kind of identity and social status in a country that's very economically depressed and where job opportunities and study opportunities are very limited.

Amber Woortman [00:16:52]

Right. Yeah. Youth unemployment recruitment in general here is extremely high. And this is also what people would like to change is the economic opportunities and the economic development of the country because it has so much to offer. It's a beautiful country. It could be perfect for tourism, but the country sometimes seems stuck in their development. But if I talk to presidential candidates, for example, they all want to change that. So it's more of a question of who is the right leader for the Timorese to create this change and improve the development of the country.

Duncan McCargo [00:17:28]

I guess a problem here is we tend to focus on leadership issues, but there's also the matter of state capacity, isn't there, Because Timor-Leste is a country where state capacity is very limited. You haven't got a well-developed bureaucracy, you haven't got much of a tax base, you haven't got much of a public sector. And normally presidents, prime ministers are able to mobilize the public sector to work on behalf of the state and to implement certain policies. And that must be incredibly hard in the context of somewhere like Timor-Leste.

Amber Woortman [00:18:00]

Yeah, from what I've heard from other people that yeah, I would agree with that.

Duncan McCargo [00:18:04]

Is there a palpable sense of excitement in the air as the election approaches now?

Amber Woortman [00:18:08]

Yes from what I've been feeling here, people are really excited. So it's a day of festivity and people are excited for the outcome as well. But the point is that this is a semi presidential system and it has a two round system as well. Right. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote, there will be a second round. And some people will say, okay, well, I'm going to choose now following my heart for the first election, but for the second election. I just want to get rid of one person, so to say so. So there's also a difference in how they will vote, I think.

Duncan McCargo [00:18:46]

Yes. And when will the second round take place, if there is one?

Amber Woortman [00:18:50]

The 19th April.

Duncan McCargo [00:18:52]

So that's quite some way off still. So it might be that this month's election doesn't actually resolve the situation. That's still open to question.

Amber Woortman [00:19:00]

Right. Yeah. There has only been one time that there was only one round, so I expect it will be two rounds. But let's see.

Duncan McCargo [00:19:07]

Yeah. So it's highly possible that we won't in fact get the full answer to the question after this coming Saturday. What about the level of interest amongst the international community or academics and diplomats and so on who follow these events? If this was another Southeast Asian country, they'd probably be lots of people there scrutinizing what was going on. But Timor-Leste, as you know, rather hard to get to. What's the level of international scrutiny?

Amber Woortman [00:19:33]

I know that there are like 28 observers now from the EU, short term and long term. And there are two other organizations, including the Asian Network for Free Elections. That is internationally observing the upcoming election. And other than that, you can see that the UNDP, for example, plays big role. It has written the Handbook of the Election and how to make it COVID 19 resilient. So you see international actors being present in the country already for a long time, but also people who are coming from outside to observe the elections and see if everything is going in a free and fair way.

Duncan McCargo [00:20:17]

And have there been many journalists? Have you seen the international correspondents come to Dili to cover the election?

Amber Woortman [00:20:24]

No, not that much, actually I think I haven't seen one yet. I've seen a lot of local Timorese media, but the whole difficulty was getting here were extremely hard. It took me maybe two weeks to get an appointment to get my ticket confirmation. To get actually to ECMA. So it's been incredibly hard to get here also during the COVID situation. Right? Of course. And other than that, I'm not sure if people are necessarily interested still in East Timor.

Duncan McCargo [00:21:00]

Yeah, I think that's one of the questions. There was obviously a lot of excitement around the referendum, around the independence period at the end of the last century, the last millennium in the end of the 90 seconds. But it does seem that since 2002, international interest in East Timor has rather faded. And that's perhaps reflected in the lack of foreign correspondents showing up in Dili to report this very important election.

Amber Woortman [00:21:24]

Right, Yeah. In 2006 it did increase till 2012 and you will see that the UN and the EU are still located here. But indeed it scores high on the democratic index, right. And within Asia. And it can be an example for other countries that are in the post-conflict era and it is doing a good job on the elections and being transparent. There are several governmental institutions that are making sure that those elections are transparent and there are 16 candidates. People can become presidential candidates. It's also if you talk to youth, they aspire to become a political leader for them so youth leadership is extremely important here. And also I've mentioned before it's going to be interesting to see the shift from the transformation from the old generation to the new generation. And I think youth leadership takes and supporting that. Youth leadership takes a big part in that.

Duncan McCargo [00:22:31]


Amber Woortman [00:22:32]

But of course, there can be more international attention for the country. It needs help, but at the same time, you don't want to overstep your role as an international actor. Indeed. And want to make the country dependent. You can also question like, why is the UNDP still here after 20 years? So there are many things that make this country interesting. But for me, for the past few weeks, and especially during the campaigning period, I've just been amazed by the political willpower of the people and the willingness to vote and get the best out of this country. And the need to share what they think about the country, and they want to share their culture with others and their nature and their culture. And what I said, the example of being a democratic society after having such a long period of bloodshed and brutality.

Duncan McCargo [00:23:37]

Right now. It's a complicated picture, but in many ways it is a good news story. It's a highly competitive election of a kind. We don't have quite as many as we used to around in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. These days, there's a lot of commitment to this political process, a lot of passion and energy and enthusiasm for a democratic system, despite all the structural obstacles and socio economic challenges that East Timor as a post-conflict society has.

Amber Woortman [00:24:05]

Yeah, exactly. Well said.

Duncan McCargo [00:24:07]

Okay. Thanks so much Amber for talking to us on the Nordic Asia podcast.

Amber Woortman [00:24:12]

Thank you, Duncan.

Duncan McCargo [00:24:22]

In this episode of the Nordic Asia podcast. We've been joined by Amber Woortman, who's a master's student in political science at the University of Copenhagen, who's been talking to us about the atmosphere and the issues in the run up to the 2022 presidential elections taking place in Timor-Leste or East Timor, where she's had the opportunity to be on the ground observing developments there. This is the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in the study of Asia. I'm Duncan McCargo, director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast