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Consolidating democracy

The Dili Weekly - May 9, 2012

Damien Kingsbury – As Timor-Leste moves towards marking the 10th anniversary of its independence and completing the third round of its national elections, the question arises as to whether it has consolidated its democracy.

The assumption is that consolidating democracy is a necessary step towards ending internal conflict and regularising the affairs of the state. But, the second question is, when one talks about consolidating democracy, what they mean by the term?

Having three sets of elections at regular intervals is certainly a good sign of democratic consolidation in Timor-Leste. Yet elections alone do not comprise democracy. Indonesia had regular elections between 1977 and 1997 under its New Order government, yet it was very far from being a democratic state at that time. It is not enough to have the formal procedure of democracy; one also requires the substance, if the term is to have meaning.

In simple terms, the substance of democracy is when the government not only represents the free choice of the majority of voters but also acts in the interests of all citizens, basing its policies on the choice of the majority but not to the exclusion of a minority. To ensure this, the government should be accountable to the citizens of the state, through the already noted regular elections, an independent electoral body, a separate and independent judiciary and other balancing institutions such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption commission, and responsive state agencies.

Timor-Leste scores well on the institutional scale, having both a National Electoral Commission and a Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (even if the two do sometimes compete with each other) and a strongly developing Anti-Corruption Commission. Even Timor-Leste's judiciary is beginning to develop well, if having had a slow start and still struggling with the country's multiplicity of languages.

It is a truism that justice is delivered in a language that cannot be directly understood then it is, in effect, unavailable. The issue of language remains vexed for the country, in a range of ways. Having the judicial process conducted in a language that a small minority of the population can understand, much less its legal complexity, militates against access to the judicial process.

So, too, the access to justice in the districts is limited, particularly outside district capitals, and the back-log of cases remains significant. But from having a limited previous existence and a design primarily intended to promote control and compliance rather than justice, the rule of law in Timor-Leste has made great strides in a relatively short period of time.

The judiciary also remains able to advise the President on constitutional questions and otherwise acts as a disincentive to illegal or corrupt behavior.

The extent to which Timor-Leste's state agencies are responsive varies, ranging from the slow and inadequate to the quick and competent. Perhaps the point here, though, is that each are being pushed to work harder, faster and better, to be more responsive and more accountable. Such a shift in institutional cultural does not, however, come quickly. This, then, requires executive ministers who are prepared to require consistent standards of their employees and who are not subject to the pressures of family or friends.

Most importantly, however, for real political consolidation, is the sense that voters know that they have the power to endorse or reject political candidates at the ballot box. The change of government through the 2007 elections most ably demonstrated this capacity.

The 2012 elections look set to more subtly change the political landscape. Taur Matan Ruak may have been Xanana Gusmao's preferred candidate for President, but that the incumbent, Jose Ramos-Horta, did not have a stranglehold on the position spoke volumes for the ability of voters to make and accept political change. At least as importantly, the grace and dignity with which Ramos-Horta accepted this change and handed over authority said much for the type of political society Timor-Leste was becoming.

But perhaps most importantly, what are referred to as the 'informal rules' of democratic processes shape and locate democratic consolidation. In this, the idea of sharing a democratic space with others equally and fairly to overall mutual benefit consolidates the meaning of democracy in the minds of the state's citizens.

In its original connotation, this idea of informal democratic rules' differentiated between citizens who were not aware or only partially aware of the function of the political system, and those who were more fully aware of the roles of the executive, the administration and the judiciary.

This implies an internalising of the 'rules' of political processes, so they become acculturated or 'second nature' to their participants. That is, there is a general expectation about the rights and obligations of each of the political actors, including the voters, which works as a harmonious whole.

In this sense, Timor-Leste is still in transition, as voter knowledge of political processes has begun to take hold but could not yet be said to be embedded. Moreover, Timor-Leste's citizens are still internalising ideas of free and equal political participation, of winning and losing with calm and equanimity, and of the idea that politics is the mechanism by which a society as a whole speaks to itself and makes internally acceptable decisions.

Having said this, Timor-Leste does not come from a long democratic tradition, as do other societies in which there is a stronger sense of such processes. And even where there is such a democratic tradition, voter knowledge and understanding of political processes is often only rudimentary and, if different ways to Timor-Leste, quite tribalised.

Perhaps, though, the saving grace of Timor-Leste's political process is the way in which their involvement in it has been embraced by its citizens, as an important and meaningful community decision-making ritual. Timor-Leste's voters have clear political favorites and, in some cases, an equally clear view about who they do not want to lead them.

Individually, none can determine who is and who is not in government. But by registering to vote and then voting, often in difficult and challenging circumstances, and by making a social occasion of the process, the people of Timor-Leste have moved quickly from an authoritarian, unrepresentative form of government to one which, if it is not always as successful as voters would like, is much more responsive to their needs and aware of their ability to endorse or dispose of them at electoral will.

No political society is perfect and democratic consolidation can only exist in relative terms. But in Timor-Leste, democracy has become increasingly consolidated and, if the process continues, will stand as a shining example to others with much longer, less challenging and more generous democratic traditions.

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