Timor-Leste has held competitive elections and undergone peaceful transfers of power, but its democratic institutions remain fragile, and disputes among the major personalities from the independence struggle dominate political affairs. Judicial independence and due process are undermined by serious capacity deficits and political influence.
- Timor-Leste was severely affected by Cyclone Seroja, which caused heavy rainfall, flooding, and landslides over several days in late March and early April. The storm killed 41 people and forced nearly 16,000 people to shelter in evacuation facilities.
- In December, Richard Daschbach, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, was convicted of sexually abusing girls at a shelter he operated, as well as domestic violence and possession of child sexual abuse images. Daschbach received a 12-year prison term. Daschbach’s conviction was achieved despite trial delays and former prime minister Xanana Gusmão’s open support for the former priest.
- Timor-Leste observed May-to-June and August waves of COVID-19 transmission. Authorities reported 19,796 cases and 122 deaths to the World Health Organization throughout the year.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments. The president may serve up to two five-year terms. Francisco Guterres, known as Lú-Olo, of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) was elected president in 2017, following a generally peaceful campaign. European Union (EU) observers called the election well administered.
The leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament becomes prime minister and serves as head of government. In June 2018, former independence fighter and former president José Maria Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak, was sworn in as prime minister. He remained in that post when Fretilin, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and the Party for the Enhancement of Timorese National Unity (KHUNTO) formed a governing coalition in May 2020.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Members of the 65-seat, unicameral Parliament are directly elected and serve five-year terms. Because the minority government seated after the 2017 election could not pass a budget, the president dissolved Parliament in January 2018 and called new elections, which were held that May. The sitting opposition parties—the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), KHUNTO, and the PLP—formed the Change for Progress Alliance (AMP) coalition and won an outright majority of 34 seats. Fretilin won 23, the Democratic Party won 5, and the Democratic Development Front won 3. EU observers called the elections “transparent, well-managed and credible.” The polls were generally peaceful and orderly, despite a few violent incidents during the campaign period.
Parliament failed to approve a budget in January 2020 after the CNRT abstained. The CNRT, led by Xanana Gusmão, then left the governing coalition. The CNRT’s efforts to secure an agreement of its own failed that April, when KHUNTO—which originally supported the CNRT—broke from the alliance to support an extension of a COVID-19 state of emergency. A coalition consisting of the PLP, KHUNTO, and Fretilin was finalized that May.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The 2017 and 2018 EU election observation missions generally praised the National Election Commission for its oversight of the years’ polls but expressed concern that changes to the election laws in 2017 somewhat reduced its supervisory responsibilities. Provisions governing elections are found across several pieces of legislation, and observers have called for legal mandates governing elections to be harmonized into a more coherent framework.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties are generally free to operate. Some campaign-finance regulations favor larger parties. These include a lack of spending caps and a system in which government campaign subsidies are awarded after elections, according to the number of votes a party has won.
Two new parties, the youth-aligned KHUNTO and the PLP, won 13 parliamentary seats between them in 2017. They joined AMP in the 2018 elections and formed a governing coalition with Fretilin in 2020.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The 2018 national elections marked the third transfer of power between parties since independence.
While some smaller parties hold parliamentary seats, parties associated with the independence movement dominate. Fretilin participated in governments formed in 2017 and 2020, while the CNRT participated in the AMP coalition government in 2018. The PLP, which is led by Taur Matan Ruak, participated in the 2018 and 2020 governments.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
Politics continue to be dominated by independence-movement figures who have formed political parties. Veterans often serve as power brokers and organizers, while local village leaders are known to mobilize voters despite their ostensible nonpartisan status.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Ethnic minorities are generally well represented in politics.
While male independence leaders often hold key political roles and dominate elite political circles, some 40 percent of parliamentarians are women. One-third of electoral-list candidates must be female. Women are massively underrepresented at the local level. Observers suggest that few women would seek office except for the existence of gender-parity legislation.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
In 2017 and 2018, the government held competitive and peaceful elections without the supervision of a UN mission that had been deployed to help restore security following a 2006 political crisis.
Two governments have fallen over their inability to pass budgets in recent years. Six cabinet posts went unfilled between 2018—when Lú-Olo rejected several nominees—and 2020, when Taur Matan Ruak successfully appointed ministers to those roles.
Xanana Gusmão retains influence over the government, though he is not in the governing coalition. The Roman Catholic Church also maintains significant influence over government policy.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
The World Bank estimates that Timor-Leste loses from 1.5 to 2 percent of gross domestic product annually to corruption. Anticorruption bodies lack enough funding to operate effectively. The independent Anti-Corruption Commission was established in 2009 and has no powers of arrest or prosecution, relying on the prosecutor general, with input from police and the courts, to follow up on corruption investigations. However, a new anticorruption law that, among other things, includes protections for whistleblowers and witnesses came into force in February 2021.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
While the state has attempted to make budgets more accessible, procurement processes remain largely opaque. Requests for public information are not always granted, and at times require applicants to undertake inconvenient travel. Information is often issued exclusively in Portuguese, which most Timorese do not speak. The anticorruption law that took effect in February 2021 introduced new rules on wealth and asset declarations that apply to civil servants, state agents, and their relatives.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
While media freedom is constitutionally protected, domestic media outlets are vulnerable to political pressure due to their reliance on government financial support, in a small media market with limited nongovernmental sources of support. However, in recent years, journalists have been more willing to produce articles critical of the government.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of religion is protected in the constitution, and Timor-Leste is a secular state. Approximately 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Muslims have reported some cases of discrimination and harassment.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are few constraints on open and free private discussion, and citizens are free to discuss political and social issues. Topics related to the 2006 unrest, in which armed clashes between the police and mobilized civilian groups resulted in numerous deaths and the displacement of some 150,000 people, remain sensitive. During the 2021 trial against Richard Daschbach, victims reported they faced online attack.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
While freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice, some laws can be invoked to restrict peaceful gatherings. Demonstrations must be authorized in advance, and those deemed to be “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials are prohibited.
Public gatherings were banned in March 2020 when the government imposed a COVID-19-related state of emergency. That state of emergency expired in November 2021, though gathering restrictions reportedly remained.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can generally operate without interference, although all registered NGOs receiving government or donor funds are under the oversight of the Ministry of Planning and Finance. Few NGOs operate outside of the capital. The government is generally receptive to the input of NGOs and included civil society in its COVID-19 response.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
Workers, other than police and military personnel, are permitted to form and join labor unions and bargain collectively, though a 2011 law requires written notification of demands and allows for five days for a response from employers in advance of striking. If employers do not respond or if an agreement is not reached within 20 days, then five days’ notice is required for a strike. In practice, few workers are unionized due to high levels of unemployment and informal economic activity.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
Concerns over judicial independence remain for politically sensitive cases, and there is still reported political and religious interference in the judicial system.
The judicial system adjudicated the case of defrocked Roman Catholic priest Richard Daschbach, who faced 14 charges of sexual abuse along with domestic violence and possess of child sexual abuse images, in 2021. While Xanana Gusmão openly supported Daschbach, he was convicted and received a 12-year prison term in December. Daschbach is the first priest to face public accusation and trial for such accusations in Timor-Leste; the proceedings were viewed as a significant test of judicial independence.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Due process rights are often restricted or denied, owing in part to a dearth of resources and personnel. The training of new magistrates following the 2014 dismissals of foreign judges has been slow, resulting in significant case backlogs, although this is improving with the resumption of training programs. The use of Portuguese for court administration poses an obstacle, and shortages of interpreters have sometimes forced the adjournment of trials.
The trial against Richard Daschbach did not begin until February 2021, even though he was arrested in 2019; his trial was also affected by delays caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cases involving past human rights abuses are required by law to be heard by a panel including two international judges, though the 2014 dismissals interrupted these cases and no new cases have been brought since.
Alternative methods of dispute resolution and customary law are widely used, though they lack enforcement mechanisms and have other significant shortcomings, including unequal treatment of women.
Many municipalities have no fixed courts and rely on mobile services. The government has established mobile courts as an interim measure and has announced plans for the development of a hybrid justice system, with more harmonization between formal and customary dispute resolution mechanisms.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Police officers and soldiers are regularly accused of excessive force and abuse of power, though the courts have had some success in prosecuting offenders. Public perception of the police has improved in recent years, as have general feelings of security.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
While hate crimes based on sexual orientation are considered an aggravating circumstance in the penal code, other protections against discrimination for LGBT+ people are lacking. Gay men and transgender women have trouble accessing employment opportunities due to low rates of access to education and discrimination. Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women report cases of extreme physical violence from strangers and family members, including cases of “corrective” rape and forced marriage or relationships with members of the opposite sex. Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but discrimination and gender inequality persist in practice and in customary law.
Religious minorities have reported difficulties in having marriage and birth certificates issued by religious entities readily accepted by the authorities. There have been recent complaints of discrimination against Muslims in civil service hiring.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Citizens generally enjoy unrestricted travel, though travel by land to the enclave of Oecusse is hampered by visa requirements and Indonesian and Timorese checkpoints. Individuals enjoy free choice of residence and employment, but unemployment rates are high, especially among youth, and most of the population relies on subsistence farming. External borders were largely closed for much of 2020 and 2021 under official COVID-19 measures.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Timorese have the right to establish businesses. However, practical aspects of establishing and operating a business are complicated by inefficiencies that make it difficult to gain appropriate permits and enforce contracts, as well as difficulties in obtaining credit.
Property rights are complicated by past conflicts, ongoing disagreements, and the unclear status of communal or customary land rights. A national land law designed to establish formal tenure and to help resolve disputes through arbitration was enacted in 2017.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence remain widespread. Civil society groups have criticized the courts’ use of prison sentences for only the most severe and injurious such cases, and few reported cases are investigated. A lack of GBV training hampers investigatory procedures into such cases, including investigators’ failure to recognize or collect evidence.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Timor-Leste is both a source and destination country for human trafficking. Timorese from rural areas are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, and children are sometimes placed in bonded labor. Despite government efforts, including the promulgation of the 2017 Law on Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking, investigations have declined in recent years. Some 267 cases were investigated in 2017 but that number fell to 65 in 2018, 13 in 2019, and 2 in 2020. No trafficking convictions have been achieved since 2018.
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