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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Parliament was dissolved in January and parliamentary elections were held for the second time in ten months in May. The Change for Progress Alliance (AMP), a coalition of sitting opposition parties, won an outright majority, and took power from the minority government led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin).
- The elections were generally peaceful and orderly, despite a few violent incidents during the campaign period.
- After some debate, the new government approved a budget in September. The previous government had been dissolved in part due to its inability to approve a budget.
- A district court’s May ruling involving the release of a Chinese fishing fleet caught in Timorese waters with a cargo of thousands of endangered sharks prompted criticism of the Timorese judiciary.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 32 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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, was elected president in 2017, following a campaign period a European Union (EU) observer mission praised for its generally peaceful conduct. The mission assessed the election itself as having been 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.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Members of the 65-seat, unicameral Parliament are directly elected and serve five-year terms. Because the minority government that was seated after the 2017 election could not pass a budget, the president dissolved parliament in January 2018 and called new elections, which were held in May. The sitting opposition parties—the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), the Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (KHUNTO), and the People’s Liberation Party (PLP)—came together as the AMP and won an outright majority of 34 seats. Fretilin won 23 seats, the Democratic Party (PD) won 5 seats, and the Democratic Development Front (FDD) won 3 seats.
An EU observer mission called the elections “transparent, well-managed and credible;” and they were generally peaceful and orderly, despite a few violent incidents during the campaign period.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The 2017 and 2018 EU election observation missions generally praised the National Election Commission (CNE) for its oversight of the years’ polls, but expressed concern that changes to the election laws in 2017 somewhat reduced the body’s supervisory responsibilities. Provisions governing elections are found across a number of pieces of legislation, and observers have called for legal mandates governing elections to be harmonized into a more coherent framework.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
Some campaign finance regulations favor larger parties, such as a lack of caps on spending, and a system in which government campaign subsidies are awarded after elections, according to the number of votes a party won.
Nevertheless, political parties are generally free to form and operate. Two new parties, the youth-aligned KHUNTO, and the PLP, concentrated enough support ahead of the 2017 elections to win 13 legislative seats between them that year. They later joined the AMP coalition in the 2018 elections, which won with an outright majority in parliament.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The national elections in 2018 marked the third time since independence that governing power transferred between parties. The formation of a new majority AMP government comprised of the opposition parties from the 2017 elections includes the CNRT and two new parties, the PLP and KHUNTO.
While some smaller parties hold seats in parliament, parties associated with the independence movement continue to dominate politics, with the 2017 government led by Fretilin and the 2018 government led by a coalition which includes the CNRT.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Politics are dominated by independence-movement figures who have formed political parties. However, some younger candidates have begun to emerge and win representation.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Ethnic minorities are generally well represented in politics. Due to parity laws, Timor-Leste has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the Asia-Pacific region. However, women have overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that there would be few if any women candidates on party lists in the absence of parity laws, and that in practice women politicians have difficulty participating meaningfully in political processes. Since 2017, the Election Management Bodies have collected gender-disaggregated data, which showed that women’s voter turnout in the 2018 elections was 48.6 percent.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
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. A new minority government was formed after the legislative elections in 2017, but due to inability to pass a budget was dissolved by the president in January 2018. The new government elected in May’s early polls debated and approved a budget in September.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Anticorruption bodies lack enough funding to operate effectively. The independent Anti-Corruption Commission (CAC) has no powers of arrest or prosecution and must rely on the prosecutor general, with input from police and the courts, to follow up on corruption investigations.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
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 in Portuguese, which may not be accessible to those who speak local languages.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 38 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Media freedom is protected in the constitution. In practice, 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 paid advertising. Journalists are often treated with suspicion, particularly by government officials, and practice self-censorship. However, in recent years, the country’s journalists have been more willing to produce articles critical of the government.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Freedom of religion is protected in the constitution, and Timor-Leste is a secular state. Approximately 97 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestant groups have reported some cases of discrimination and harassment.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4 (+1)
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because citizens are largely free to discuss political topics without fear of surveillance or retribution.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 8 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, and while it is generally respected in practice, some laws can be invoked to restrict peaceful gatherings. Demonstrations deemed to be “questioning constitutional order,” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials, are prohibited. Demonstrations must be authorized in advance, and laws restrict how close they can be to government buildings and critical infrastructure.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can generally operate without interference, although the state actively monitors and regulates their work. Few NGOs operate outside of the capital.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
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.
F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
There is still reported political interference in the justice system, and for a period between 2014 and 2017, the work of the judiciary was disrupted by government mandates regarding the permissibility of foreign judges and legal workers. After independence, the judicial system depended on contracted foreign judges and lawyers. In 2014, however, the government terminated contracts and visas of foreigners working in judicial, prosecutorial, and anticorruption institutions. As a result, legal proceedings in some courts were delayed or forced to restart with new personnel, and the Legal and Judicial Training Centre was closed. Later, a 2017 law explicitly permitting foreign judges allowed training courses for Timorese judges to recommence after a three-year closure.
A 2018 ruling involving a Chinese fishing fleet caught in 2017 in Timorese waters with a cargo of thousands of endangered sharks prompted criticism of the Timorese judiciary. In May, the fleet’s crew was released by a district court on a relatively low $100,000 bail payment, and allowed to keep their boats and cargo, which news outlets estimated to be worth up to $1 million. The court later stated that the fleet had not broken any laws, despite the protected status of the sharks.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
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 as the Legal and Judicial Training Centre has reopened with a class of trainee judges completing training in 2018. According to the US State Department, the police force operates without a clear legal definition of its mandates, and civilian complaints to police are often met with repeated requests that the complaint be submitted in writing.
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. Nine of thirteen municipalities have no fixed courts and rely on mobile services. The use of Portuguese for court administration poses an obstacle, and a shortage of Portuguese interpreters often forces the adjournment of trials.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Police officers and soldiers are regularly accused of excessive force and abuse of power, though the courts have had some success in prosecuting them. Public perception of the police has improved in recent years, as have general feelings of security.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
While hate crimes based on sexual orientation are considered an aggravating circumstance in the penal code, other protections against discrimination for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are lacking. Issues like sexual orientation and gender identity receive little public attention, though a small number of LGBT advocacy organizations have been active in recent years.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but discrimination and gender inequality persist in practice and in customary law.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
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, and most of the population still relies on subsistence farming.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Timorese have the right to establish businesses, and the legal framework for doing so is fairly straightforward. 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 a difficulties in obtaining credit.
Property rights are complicated by past conflicts and the unclear status of communal or customary land rights. There is no formal mechanism to address competing claims. A national land law designed to establish formal tenure and to help resolve disputes through arbitration was enacted in 2017, but still requires several implementing regulations.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Gender-based and domestic violence remain widespread. Civil society groups have criticized the courts’ use of prison sentences for only the most severe and injurious domestic violence cases. Many victims are reluctant to seek justice.
Timor-Leste has a teenage pregnancy rate of 24 percent. An estimated 19 percent of teenage girls are married by age 18.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Timor-Leste is both a source and destination country for human trafficking. Timorese from rural areas are vulnerable to human trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, and children are sometimes placed in bonded labor. The government has increased its efforts to prosecute offenders, including by promulgating a 2017 Law on Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking. However, no trafficking offenders have been convicted in the past five years.