Voter turnout in the U.S. for midterm congressional elections hovers around 40 percent, often a little less. In contrast, an estimated 74 percent of Timorese turned out for the July 7th parliamentary elections.
Although a four-point drop from the first round presidential contest in March, it represents a clear signal of Timorese commitment to their young democracy. The elections were peaceful and credible.
One characteristic of a mature democracy is public engagement based on issues, not the personality of its leader. In other words, is the country focused on a forward-looking prescription for the future, or the charisma of its public face?
In Timor-Leste, resistance leaders are national heroes, and rightly so, some of them now leading political parties and coalitions. And it’s their leadership, more than party platform, that often attracts many supporters in presidential and parliamentary elections.
But some voters are tuning into what political parties promised in the past and what they’ve since delivered. Voters we talked with in and around Maubisse and Hatu-Bulico were frustrated with unmet promises, whether it was building roads, improving education or expanding access to clean water.
In the months leading up to July 7th, many of the 21 parties and coalitions appealed to voters on the issues. Generally, they were forward-looking, easy-to-understand and focused on immediate needs in a poor country.
Campaigns relied on retail politicking — personal contact through village meetings, rallies, and the like — to engage voters. Although growing, voter outreach through the media is challenging and not particularly efficacious since many Timorese, especially outside Dili, lack media access, and a professional journalist class generally doesn’t exist. The campaign did see the use of some social and digital media tools, including Facebook and texting, to communicate party platforms.
Final results won’t be determined for a few days. To no one’s surprise, CNRT has won the most seats, but a governing majority in the 65-seat parliament isn’t guaranteed.
Brian C. Keeter is a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and is providing a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.