Timor-Leste’s response to the coronavirus emergency is giving new life to the country’s beleaguered democracy. Despite finding itself in a political pinch prior to the spread of the 2020 pandemic, Dili has thus far reacted with astonishing assertiveness and cohesion, while balancing against overreach. Indeed, the timing of the outbreak earlier this year could help to resurrect a slumping government in dire need of a reset. Too often in the past, the political elite has prioritized its own narrow party interests above strengthening the country’s nascent governing institutions. But so far, the virus has given Timor-Leste’s political leadership a new opportunity to strengthen its commitment to democracy.
As a relatively new democracy that has struggled to maintain political stability since its independence in 2002, Timor-Leste is an unexpected candidate for taking decisive action in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the government continues to show newfound institutional capacity in reacting to the health emergency in its midst. As of late last week, there were 1,726 people under surveillance in Timor-Leste for signs of the virus, another 1,072 in mandatory confinement at quarantine sites, and 654 in self-quarantine in their domiciles. However, only one confirmed case of Covid-19 has so far been announced.
Last week, the cabinet approved a USD $250 million fund to combat the spread of the respiratory disease Covid-19 caused by the new coronavirus, according to a government statement. Crucially, the money is allocated for spending on the right types of response efforts, including purchase of medicines and medical equipment, and the installation and maintenance of quarantine and isolation sites. Also critical is that some of the money will be coming from the government’s Petroleum Fund, which is designed in part for spending on health and education, but which has at times come under scrutiny regarding proper allocation and responsible spending.
What makes Timor-Leste’s deft response even more surprising is the sclerotic approach to decision-making it had shown in the months leading up to the virus’s outbreak. Timor-Leste’s government had been plagued by indecisiveness and an unwillingness to come to agreement on vital state matters. Its ongoing inability to resolve a budget dispute has hampered efforts to root out corruption and reduce poverty. The budget impasse eventually led to the collapse of the government in January, as well as the February offer of resignation by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak. In late February, it appeared that longtime political mainstay Xanana Gusmão would form a new coalition that included six parliamentary parties, including his own National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction Party. However, the president never accepted Ruak’s resignation, leaving him as interim leader and the government in a caretaker status. This was an unenviable position given the decisive actions that would need to be taken as the coronavirus began to spread in the region.
However, at a time when the Timorese people need an accountable government, Prime Minister Ruak is taking responsibility for the government’s measures. On April 8, Ruak withdrew his resignation and announced he would stay in power to oversee the battle against the virus. Ruak’s role in the interim status has helped him build the support necessary to continue to fight the spread of the virus while also maintain civil liberties. For example, the Parliament approved a state of emergency that the President issued, stating it would last from 28 March to 26 April. The measure restricts the entry of all foreigners unless specifically authorized, as well as isolation for all arrivals. Businesses and street vendors are permitted to operate under strict social distancing and hand sanitation guidelines. Finally, a commission of multiple ministries to be led by Ruak was formed to track the government’s response.
It’s important to note that while Timor-Leste’s prevention measures are a positive start, it does not mean that the country will not suffer from a virus outbreak sometime in the next month. Indeed, the longtime under-resourced nature of the health services in Timor-Leste means that a monumental effort would be needed to totally prevent a deadly outbreak from occurring. However, the government’s response does show that the nation’s political elite is capable of putting aside its internal divisions to present a united front in an effort to respond to the health needs of the population. While fear of an outbreak has put many locals on edge, with some instances of xenophobia and placing blame on foreigners, the government is seeking to reduce panic and not play to popular fears. Political leaders will also need to actively model social distancing to help reinforce its importance for the population.
Timor-Leste’s efforts to contain the virus are in keeping with its status as one of the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. This comes despite the faltering steps in recent years among Timor-Leste’s politicians that have led some analysts to question whether democratic erosion might be weakening the country’s democratic foundations. Even with an interim government in charge as the pandemic spread, Timor-Leste has managed to find a middle ground between protecting its vulnerable population and overstepping its governmental authority. However, the battles against the coronavirus, as well as democratic backsliding, are not yet over. Given its decrepit healthcare system, the outbreak could rapidly spread at any time. So far, Timor-Leste’s political leadership is using the deadly crisis as a chance to reassert a capable and democratic government that can be responsive and accountable to the needs of its citizens. As the country returns to normal, the government must show that, even in a post-crisis environment, it can be responsive to the population and allow citizens to formulate, signify, and have their preferences weighed (Dahl, 1972).
Image: Photographer: James D. Morgan/Getty Images AsiaPac
Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
This post highlights how crises do not have to inevitably lead to more authoritarian measures, but rather a strengthening of democracy. The balance between an assertive, immediate response and a democratic one is certainly not an easy needle to thread. In contrast to the delayed response in more established democracies like the United Kingdom, it is interesting to note how a democracy like Timor-Leste, which appeared to be at risk, was able to come to important decisions about how to deal with the crisis. One notable difference was the limited state of emergency imposed by the Timorese government. While in other countries like Hungary, an unbounded state of emergency was imposed which granted the executive new, sweeping powers, the Timorese state of emergency was imposed only until 26 April.
However, one potential danger could arise given the degraded state of the Timorese medical system. If the crisis were to worsen, it is very possible that it would increase tensions, decrease the ability for members of Parliament to work together, and ultimately lead to an authoritarian consolidation of executive power. Regardless, the ability of the Timorese government to utilize the Coronavirus crisis to increase its democratic capacity is an important counterpoint to the notion that crises often cause an increase in authoritarianism.