Emily Toome is in Timor-Leste conducting field work for her PhD thesis. She reflects on the mood of the nation's capital during this year's parliamentary elections.
Our car is forced to a standstill, caught in a seemingly relentless stream of traffic ferrying crowds of boisterous East Timorese, draped in the tshirts, flags and colours of one of their country's large political parties. There's loud shouting, songs and chants. Passengers bang metal pipes against the sides of the trucks they have piled into the back of. Motorcycle riders rev their engines, their noise competing with the blare of horns from other vehicles.
"Do you think they'll all vote for Fretilin?" I ask my East Timorese colleague, who is herself an ardent supporter of the political party. "No," she tells me, "They just come to enjoy. They like the noise, the people.”
Five years ago I visited Timor-Leste to work on a small research project about voter decision making with Damian Grenfell and Kathryn Higgins from the Centre for Global Research. By a chance of timing, I'm again in the country during the national election season, and I inadvertently get caught up in the crowds on the last day of political campaigning before the parliamentary elections on Saturday 22nd July.
This time I'm here for my PhD research, exploring how post-conflict suffering is understood and addressed in the country. A key theme in my research—trauma—had been mentioned by some interviewees during that earlier project. ‘Trauma politika’ (political trauma) was attributed to memories of in-fighting between East Timorese political leaders. At that time, the most recent memory of national elections was those held in 2007, occurring in the midst of a socio-political crisis, in which several high political leaders were implicated. And further back in memory was the country's experience of violence and intimidation before and after the 1999 referendum that brought an end to the 24 year Indonesian occupation. Little wonder then that participants reported elevated fear during the 2012 elections.
This time things feel a bit different. Over the past week, the handful of East Timorese I've asked have said they're not afraid this time around and there's no risk of violent conflict erupting with the elections. Perhaps one contributing factor to this sense of security is the public display of force by the country's police and military, who have cautioned that troublemaking will not be tolerated. Another would be the "unity" agreement between the two largest political parties, Fretilin and The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), who have been working together in parliament rather than in opposition. The presidential elections held earlier this year were free from major drama (and indeed the 2012 elections saw only isolated incidences of insecurity). And in Dili at least, if the proliferation of $2 shops selling non-essential items (giant inflatable lobster anyone?) is anything to go by, more people seem to be better off materially.
This isn't to say that all is well. Some have clearly benefited more than the masses. Vital health services struggle, while the government has spent millions on infrastructure mega projects of questionable social or economic worth. A newly formed political party, People's Liberation Party
(PLP), is appealing to young people and others frustrated with the track records of the established parties. Rural-urban differences can be stark. The analysis and predictions of local development monitoring organisation La'o Hamutuk give scarce reason for optimism, should the soon-to-be elected political leaders continue on the path of their predecessors.
Only time will tell, of course. For now, I'll enjoy the hullabaloo along with the rest of the crowd.
Emily Toome is a PhD Candidate, and member of the Centre for Global Research.
Story: Emily Toome