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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 tend to dominate political affairs. Judicial independence and due process are undermined by serious capacity deficits as well as political influence. Wealth and power are concentrated among a small elite, raising concerns about corruption, but media coverage of such topics is sometimes affected by self-censorship and the threat of legal reprisals.
- In February, President Taur Matan Ruak harshly criticized powerful figures in the government and Parliament, arguing that a 2015 political pact between the two main parties had benefited the ruling elite at the expense of good governance.
- In January, Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo launched a criminal defamation case against a journalist and his editor for a 2015 report on alleged bid-rigging for contracts at the Ministry of Finance during Araújo’s tenure as a ministry adviser. A trial was under way at year’s end.
- Parliament adopted a new law on local elections in May, and elections for district and village representatives were held in October and November.
- In a high-profile corruption case dating to 2012, former finance minister Emilia Pires was found guilty in December of awarding contracts to a company owned by her husband. Sentencing was expected in early 2017.
A unity government formed in 2015 between Timor-Leste’s two largest parties, which left little meaningful opposition in Parliament, grew increasingly intolerant of criticism in 2016. In February, amid a dispute between Parliament and President Ruak over the appointment of the chief and deputy chief of the armed forces, Ruak harshly criticized the unity pact for enabling powerful figures like former prime ministers Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and Mari Alkatiri of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin) to amass personal wealth and privileges without the scrutiny of an opposition party. Members of Parliament threatened Ruak with impeachment, and Fretilin leaders warned that the country could return to instability if the president persisted in his attacks.
With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2017, Parliament in June amended the Law on Electoral Administration to change the composition of the National Election Commission. The panel’s size was reduced from 15 to 7 members, civil society representatives were no longer included, and the government and Parliament together selected a majority of the new commissioners. The law was enacted over the objections of President Ruak, who noted that it enabled the replacement of incumbent commissioners before their terms had expired.
Also in June, the president signed a new law passed by Parliament in May that governed local elections. Suco (district) councils would comprise the suco chief, aldeia (village) representatives, aldeia chiefs, traditional authorities, and male and female youth representatives. The new law provides for the direct election of aldeia representatives—one woman and one man from each aldeia. Each suco chief election must have at least one female candidate. The elections proceeded in October and November, and 21 women were elected as suco chiefs, an increase from 11 in 2009 but still a small fraction among the country’s 442 sucos.
Economic growth continued to be the government’s primary concern in 2016. The government depends on large drawdowns from its Petroleum Fund to finance infrastructure development projects and programs that ensure peace and stability, including payments to veterans of the independence struggle and army deserters who catalyzed a security crisis in 2006. The withdrawals have exceeded sustainable levels for several years, and income from the fund has dropped as a result of the reduction in global oil prices.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Timor-Leste, see Freedom in the World 2016.