Timor-Leste’s Elections: 21 Years of Independence and Transformative Changes towards SDGs
August 22, 2023
Since the 1999 independence referendum, Timorese national elections have been gaining momentum, strengthening democracy, fostering inclusive and sustainable growth and leading transformative solutions for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Over the twenty-one years of the independence, we have been witnessing not only the governmental transformations but also the unceasing efforts of citizens to uphold democracy. To date, voter turnout remains over 70%, and the high degree of transparency during the voting/vote counting process is assured by the citizens’ active participation in elections” says Acilino Branco, General Director of Secretariado Técnico de Administração Eleitoral (STAE), Election Management Bodies.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been supporting the Government of Timor-Leste and Electoral Management Bodies since the first national elections conducted by Timorese authorities until the latest election on 21 May 2023. Acilino says “The Election Management Bodies has a long-standing partnership with UNDP, they are part of the election history in Timor-Leste. We work closely for the management, but also go to rural areas together to provide hands-on support to communities, such as giving training and practical assistance to ensure safe, informative, and inclusive elections at the municipal level.” - SDGs Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
2022 was a milestone in the history of Timor-Leste, as the country marked the 20th Anniversary of the Restoration of Independence and the Presidential elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Acilino recalls the 2022 Presidential elections “In our election history, the government has been facing a myriad of political challenges during the elections, but it was the first time to cope with the global pandemic in which there was a risk that people might refrain from going to the election and undermine democratic participation”.
In response to the unprecedented situation of COVID-19, UNDP launched a US$ 4 million project, The COVID-Resilient Elections in Timor-Leste (CORE-TL) with financial support from the Government of Japan, in pursuit of assisting Election Management Bodies to conduct COVID safe, informative, and inclusive elections at the national and municipal levels. Tito Da Costa, the UNDP CORE-TL Project Manager, addresses the challenges of COVID-Resilient elections “As a Timorese citizen, I have been participating in elections since the 1999 referendum as a first-time voter. However, the 2022 elections during the COVID-19 were totally different. We started by producing Comprehensive Plans and Manuals for COVID-safe elections, and in accordance with the new protocols, we provided cascade training on COVID prevention for 16,200 election staff and procured 9 essential prevention items, including 900,000 facemasks and 6,000 bottles of sanitizer” - SDGs Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being.
As a consequence, despite the pandemic situation, the total voter turnout was 77.26% which increased by 6.10% from the previous Presidential election in 2017. “I was concerned that people might hesitate to go to the election during the pandemic outbreak. To secure the COVID-safety during the election cycle, we made sure to equip all voting centers with COVID prevention items, trained election staff, and disseminate COVID rules and essential information to voters. As seen the result of high voter turnout in 2022, it is proved that democratic elections can be realized under any predicament” says Tito.
In the following year, the Parliamentary Election was conducted on 21 May 2023, coincidentally on the next day of the 21st Anniversary of the Restoration of Independence. The highlight of the post-COVID election was to strengthen inclusive elections: promoting the participation of youth/ women/ people with disabilities. According to PwD inclusion survey conducted by the UNDP CORE-TL project after the 2022 Presidential elections, the total number of identified PwD in Timor-Leste is 9,601, in which physical / mobility disability makes up the largest PwD population with 4,084 people, followed by visual impairment with 2,043. Furthermore, we found out that 2,334 PwD (about 26%) didn’t participate in the 2022 Presidential Elections due to the lack of accessible facilities and insufficient information to participate in the elections. Especially, women and youth tend to be the most affected groups by those difficulties.
For the post-COVID elections, UNDP bolstered inclusive election by contributing to Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure supporting new constructions and renovations of 13 election offices in 10 municipalities, and Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities equipping the election offices with accessible facilities for people with disabilities as well as climate-resilient facilities to tackle Goal 13: Climate Action, installing a rainwater harvesting system and solar panels to the new buildings.
Evaresto de Conceicão, from the Timor-Leste disability association, visited the renovated election offices to test the new accessible facilities with his wheelchair. He commented “In Timor-Leste, many public buildings are not well designed for people with wheelchairs. I am grateful that our society is moving towards more inclusive and accessible for all citizens.”
While support from donors can’t be emphasized enough for the achievements. The government of Japan is the longest donor of the UNDP election project since the 2007 elections until the latest elections in 2023, providing vital assistance for the development of election mechanisms alongside its unwavering commitment to protecting human security. H.E. Ambassador of Japan to Timor-Leste Mr. KIMURA Tetsuya describes Japan’s critical role in the election support “(something about Japan-UNDP Partnership and our achievements relevant to SDGs)” - SDGs Goal 17: Partnerships For the Goals
Having twenty-one years of independence, the county is amid transformative changes: in the face of climate change, accession to the ASEAN, and sustainable development towards the 2030 Agenda. “Election is the foundation of democracy. We chose our leaders by exercising the right to vote. Our vote opens a door to a better future and prosperity for the next generations.” says Acilino.