Freedom in the World 2021 - Timor-Leste

/ 100
Political Rights 33 / 40
Civil Liberties 39 / 60
71 / 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


Timor-Leste has held competitive elections and undergone peaceful transfers of power, but its democratic institutions remain fragile, and disputes among the major personalities from the independence struggle dominate political affairs. Judicial independence and due process are undermined by serious capacity deficits and political influence.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The country’s governing coalition collapsed after the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) abstained on a budget vote in January. While the CNRT secured a coalition agreement in February, the agreement collapsed in April when the Party for the Enhancement of Timorese National Unity (KHUNTO) broke ranks. A new coalition was formed in May, with Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak keeping his post.
  • The government imposed a COVID-19-related state of emergency in late March, a week after the first case was detected in the country. The state of emergency remained in effect through year’s end, and external borders were largely closed to nonresidents. Authorities reported 44 cases and no deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) by year’s end.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments. The president may serve up to two five-year terms. Francisco Guterres, known as Lú-Olo, of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) was elected president in 2017, following a campaign period a European Union (EU) observer mission praised for its generally peaceful conduct. The observers also called the election well administered.

The leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament becomes prime minister and serves as head of government. In June 2018, former independence fighter and former president José Maria Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak, was sworn in as prime minister.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Members of the 65-seat, unicameral Parliament are directly elected and serve five-year terms. Because the minority government seated after the 2017 election could not pass a budget, the president dissolved Parliament in January 2018 and called new elections, which were held that May. The sitting opposition parties—the CNRT, KHUNTO, and the People’s Liberation Party (PLP)—formed the Change for Progress Alliance (AMP) coalition and won an outright majority of 34 seats. Fretilin won 23, the Democratic Party won 5, and the Democratic Development Front won 3. An EU observer mission called the elections “transparent, well-managed and credible,” and they were generally peaceful and orderly, despite a few violent incidents during the campaign period.

Parliament failed to approve a budget in January 2020 after the CNRT abstained. The CNRT, led by former prime minister Xanana Gusmão, then left the governing coalition, securing an agreement of its own in February. That effort failed in April, when KHUNTO—which originally supported the CNRT—broke from the alliance to support an extension of the COVID-19 state of emergency. A new coalition including the PLP, KHUNTO, and Fretilin was finalized in May, with Taur Matan Ruak remaining as prime minister.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

The 2017 and 2018 EU election observation missions generally praised the National Election Commission for its oversight of the years’ polls but expressed concern that changes to the election laws in 2017 somewhat reduced its supervisory responsibilities. Provisions governing elections are found across several pieces of legislation, and observers have called for legal mandates governing elections to be harmonized into a more coherent framework.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Political parties are generally free to operate. Some campaign-finance regulations favor larger parties. These include a lack of spending caps and a system in which government campaign subsidies are awarded after elections, according to the number of votes a party has won.

Two new parties, the youth-aligned KHUNTO and the PLP, concentrated enough support ahead of the 2017 elections to win 13 legislative seats between them that year. They joined AMP in the 2018 elections and formed a governing coalition with Fretilin in May 2020.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

The 2018 national elections marked the third time since independence that governing power transferred between parties.

While some smaller parties hold seats in Parliament, parties associated with the independence movement continue to dominate politics. Fretilin participated in governments formed in 2017 and 2020, while the CNRT participated in AMP when that coalition entered government in 2018. The PLP, which is led by Taur Matan Ruak, participated in the 2018 and 2020 governments.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 3 / 4

Politics continue to be dominated by independence-movement figures who have formed political parties. Veterans often serve as power brokers and organizers, while local village leaders are known to mobilize voters despite their ostensible nonpartisan status.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Ethnic minorities are generally well represented in politics.

Some 38.5 percent of parliamentarians are women. One-third of electoral-list candidates must be female. Women have overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that there would be few if any women candidates on party lists in the absence of parity laws. Women have also been underrepresented at the local level and within the leadership of political parties.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

In 2017 and 2018, the government held competitive and peaceful elections without the supervision of a UN mission that had been deployed to help restore security following a 2006 political crisis.

Governments have fallen over their inability to pass budgets in recent years; Parliament was dissolved in early 2018 for this reason. AMP was disrupted after it was unable to pass a budget in January 2020. A 2020 budget was passed in October and a 2021 budget was successfully passed in December.

Six cabinet posts had gone unfilled since 2018, when Lú-Olo rejected several nominees. Taur Matan Ruak announced nominees for those posts, including the health, commerce, and finance ministries, in late April 2020. Nominees were officially appointed in May.

The government was criticized by former president José Ramos-Horta and Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri for continually extending pandemic-related states of emergency, despite the country’s apparent success in containing the virus’s spread.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the incumbent prime minister was able to form a new coalition and stabilize the government, filling key positions that had remained vacant since 2018.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

The World Bank estimates that Timor-Leste loses from 1.5 to 2 percent of gross domestic product annually to corruption. Anticorruption bodies lack enough funding to operate effectively. The independent Anti-Corruption Commission was established in 2009 and has no powers of arrest or prosecution, relying on the prosecutor general, with input from police and the courts, to follow up on corruption investigations. However, a new anticorruption law, which includes protections for whistleblowers, was gazetted in August 2020.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

While the state has attempted to make budgets more accessible, procurement processes remain largely opaque. Requests for public information are not always granted, and at times require applicants to undertake inconvenient travel. Information is often issued exclusively in Portuguese, which most Timorese do not speak.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4

While media freedom is constitutionally protected, domestic media outlets are vulnerable to political pressure due to their reliance on government financial support, in a small media market with limited nongovernmental sources of support. Journalists are often treated with suspicion, particularly by government officials, and self-censor. However, in recent years, journalists have been more willing to produce articles critical of the government.

In June 2020, the government proposed the criminalization of defamation. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the proposal’s withdrawal later that month. The Timor-Leste Press Union also voiced its opposition that month. In August, Lú-Olo stated the proposal was not a priority for the government, though it had not been officially withdrawn.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Freedom of religion is protected in the constitution, and Timor-Leste is a secular state. Approximately 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Muslims have reported some cases of discrimination and harassment.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is generally respected.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

There are few constraints on open and free private discussion, and citizens are free to discuss political and social issues. Topics related to the 2006 unrest, in which armed clashes between the police and mobilized civilian groups resulted in numerous deaths and the displacement of some 150,000 people, remain sensitive.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4

Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed. While it is generally respected in practice, some laws can be invoked to restrict peaceful gatherings. Demonstrations deemed to be “questioning constitutional order,” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials, are prohibited. Demonstrations must be authorized in advance, and laws restrict how close they can be to government buildings and critical infrastructure.

Public gatherings were banned in March 2020 when the government imposed a COVID-19-related state of emergency. A state of emergency remained in force at year’s end.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can generally operate without interference, although all registered NGOs receiving government or donor funds are under the oversight of the Ministry of Planning and Finance. Few NGOs operate outside of the capital.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

Workers, other than police and military personnel, are permitted to form and join labor unions and bargain collectively, though a 2011 law requires written notification of demands and allows for five days for a response from employers in advance of striking. If employers do not respond or if an agreement is not reached within 20 days, then five days’ notice is required for a strike. In practice, few workers are unionized due to high levels of unemployment and informal economic activity.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4

Concerns over judicial independence remain for politically sensitive cases, and there is still reported political interference in the judicial system.

After independence, the judicial system depended on contracted foreign judges and lawyers. In 2014, however, the government terminated contracts and visas of foreigners working in judicial, prosecutorial, and anticorruption institutions. As a result, legal proceedings in some courts were delayed or forced to restart with new personnel, and the Legal and Judicial Training Centre was closed. Later, a 2017 law explicitly permitting foreign judges allowed training courses for Timorese judges to recommence after a three-year interruption.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Due process rights are often restricted or denied, owing in part to a dearth of resources and personnel. The training of new magistrates following the 2014 dismissals of foreign judges has been slow, resulting in significant case backlogs, although this is improving with the resumption of training programs. The use of Portuguese for court administration poses an obstacle, and a shortage of Portuguese interpreters often forces the adjournment of trials.

Cases involving past human rights abuses are required by law to be heard by a panel including two international judges, though the 2014 dismissals interrupted these cases.

Alternative methods of dispute resolution and customary law are widely used, though they lack enforcement mechanisms and have other significant shortcomings, including unequal treatment of women.

Geographical access to courts remains a challenge. Many municipalities have no fixed courts and rely on mobile services. The government has established mobile courts as an interim measure and has announced plans for the development of a hybrid justice system, with more harmonization between formal and customary dispute resolution mechanisms.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Police officers and soldiers are regularly accused of excessive force and abuse of power, though the courts have had some success in prosecuting offenders. Public perception of the police has improved in recent years, as have general feelings of security.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

While hate crimes based on sexual orientation are considered an aggravating circumstance in the penal code, other protections against discrimination for LGBT+ people are lacking. Gay men and transgender women have particular trouble accessing employment opportunities due to low rates of access to education and discrimination. Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women report cases of extreme physical violence from strangers and family members, including cases of “corrective” rape and forced marriage or relationships with members of the opposite sex. Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but discrimination and gender inequality persist in practice and in customary law.

Religious minorities have reported difficulties in having marriage and birth certificates issued by religious entities readily accepted by the authorities. There have been recent complaints of discrimination against Muslims in civil-service hiring.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

Citizens generally enjoy unrestricted travel, though travel by land to the enclave of Oecusse is hampered by visa requirements and Indonesian and Timorese checkpoints. Individuals enjoy free choice of residence and employment, but unemployment rates are high, especially among youth, and most of the population still relies on subsistence farming. External borders were largely closed for much of 2020 as part of the government’s COVID-19 response.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

Timorese have the right to establish businesses. However, practical aspects of establishing and operating a business are complicated by inefficiencies that make it difficult to gain appropriate permits and enforce contracts, as well as difficulties in obtaining credit.

Property rights are complicated by past conflicts and the unclear status of communal or customary land rights. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Asia Foundation, land problems remain the biggest reported security issue in Timor-Leste, with signs that land-related disputes have increased since 2015. There is no formal mechanism to address competing claims. A national land law designed to establish formal tenure and to help resolve disputes through arbitration was enacted in 2017, but still requires several implementing regulations.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence remain widespread. A survey conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2016 found that 59 percent of girls and women aged 15–49 had experienced violence by an intimate partner and 14 percent had experienced rape by someone other than their partner. Civil society groups have criticized the courts’ use of prison sentences for only the most severe and injurious such cases, and few reported cases are investigated. A lack of GBV training hampers investigatory procedures into such cases, including investigators’ failure to recognize or collect evidence.

According to a 2017 UN Population Fund report, 24 percent of women in Timor-Leste have a child by the time they reach the age of 20, while 19 percent of women aged 20–24 are married by the time they turn 18.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Timor-Leste is both a source and destination country for human trafficking. Timorese from rural areas are vulnerable to human trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, and children are sometimes placed in bonded labor. The government has increased its efforts to prosecute offenders, including by promulgating the 2017 Law on Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking. However, authorities investigated only 13 trafficking cases in 2019; that figure stood at 65 in 2018, 267 in 2017, and 176 in 2016. No trafficking convictions have been recorded in several years.