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Peace should now be the norm for Timor-Leste’s political contests

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As Timor-Leste goes to the second round of the presidential elections, the peace that marked the first round appears to be holding. Apart from an incident in Viqueque District, there have been no notable outbreaks of violence, so far, to mar this electoral process. Many have congratulated Timor-Leste for this important achievement.

The peaceful environment that has greeted these elections was in part as a result of an agreement between the leaders of political parties to restrain their supporters from attacking each other. This stands in marked contrast to the 2007 elections, in which there were few if any such restraints and violence and destruction were widespread, both before and after the elections were held.

Many of Timor-Leste’s friends wondered at this time what the purpose was of achieving independence if this was to be its result. Many in Timor-Leste asked the same question, and have since rejected violence.

Timor-Leste’s political leaders have also recognised that they will soon be taking full responsibility for the security of the state as the UN and the International Stabilisation Force draws down at the end of this year. To allow instability now would mean these leaders will inherit a deeply unstable environment in the longer term.

Such instability would reflect a pattern of poor domestic leadership and a continuing cycle of state fragility, if not failure, and raise the spectre of possible future external intervention. No-one – not the people of Timor-Leste and not the international community – want this.

More than what they don’t want, the people of Timor-Leste do want a secure and peaceful future they can build their lives on. Most East Timorese already struggle to survive from day to day providing for their families and themselves. Conflict only creates major set-backs which most people are so little able to overcome.

The benefits that independence was intended to deliver have been slow in coming, as they usually are in newly independent states still building economic and organisational capacity. Violence and destruction, however, only make such goals further distant.

Most of the people of Timor-Leste know this, so the question remains why there has been so much violence to date and why it continues to be not very far removed from political contests, as the recent events in Viqueque illustrated.

In an environment of limited resources, leaders of groups compete to secure the greatest amount of resources for their client group. This can be in the form of employment, contracts or other hand-outs.

Assuming the patron secures political power, they are then able to distribute resources among their client group. The client group is happy and the patron further entrenches their own power.

Of course, however, in such a scenario, the client group of a patron who does not gain power loses access to resources. This is not a ‘win-win’ situation.

In an environment in which there are few simple avenues available to influencing open political contest, the outcome of which can result in access to resources, rallies and other public shows of support become important symbols of unity and advocacy. Limiting or stopping others’ demonstrating such unity and advocacy can influence perceptions about popularity and legitimacy and may thus influence or change opportunities for election.

Limiting others’ political displays is therefore viewed as enhancing one’s own group of electoral success. Electoral success is, in turn, viewed as being associated with a group that is therefore best placed to distribute patronage.

It is a small step from attempting to limit another’s freedom of political expression to resistance to that limitation and, hence, conflict. Conflict is especially likely when two or more parties are attempting to limit each other’s freedom of expression; they both attack and they both resist, doubling the violent potential.

Yet when resources are limited, they should be distributed not according to patron-client group but according to equity based on citizenship, to ensure that all get something and that no-one misses out entirely. This is fair and this helps build national cohesion.

By contrast, the beneficiaries of political violence are not the people who engage in it and who therefore risk their own freedom and property. Their rewards are, at best, small. The beneficiaries of such violence are the patrons, who rarely risk their own lives or property but who can benefit greatly from others’ suffering. Loyalty should not be to the patron as the boss, but to the nation as equal citizens.

As Timor-Leste develops, its now growing resources need to be distributed equitably, to ensure that all are treated equally, that no-one is unfairly disadvantaged and so no-one feels they need to fight in order to advantage their patron client group.

Rather, jobs should be distributed based on competence and competitiveness rather than personal favour. Contracts should be let on best value for money. Goods and services should be distributed on the basis of citizenship, not personal or party loyalty. With nothing to be gained from its use, violence should, in these circumstances, become redundant.

Timor-Leste should no longer require the congratulations of others for not tearing itself to pieces, but own responsibility for an end to the possibility of violence. Peace should now be the norm for Timor-Leste’s political contests, and no longer the remarked-upon exception.

 

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