Freedom in the World 2023 -Timor-Leste

/ 100
Political Rights 33 / 40
Civil Liberties 39 / 60
72 / 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 since gaining independence in 2002, but its democratic institutions remain fragile and disputes among leaders from the independence struggle dominate political affairs. Due process is undermined by serious capacity and budgetary deficits.

Key Developments in 2022

  • Timorese voted in a two-round presidential election in March and April. Former president José Ramos-Horta defeated incumbent Francisco Guterres, known as Lú-Olo, of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). Ramos-Horta was backed by National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) leader Xanana Gusmão.
  • In November, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed in principle to add Timor-Leste as its 11th member. ASEAN is expected to show a roadmap to full membership in 2023.

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. Timorese participated in a two-round presidential election in 2022. Sixteen candidates competed in first round, a record. Former president José Ramos-Horta defeated the incumbent, Lú-Olo of Fretilin, in the April run-off with 62.1 percent of the vote. Turnout stood at 77.3 percent in the first round and 75.2 percent in the second. Ramos-Horta was supported by Xanana Gusmão of the CNRT.

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. He remained in that post when Fretilin, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and the Party for the Enhancement of Timorese National Unity (KHUNTO) formed a governing coalition in May 2020.

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. Following a minority government’s failure to pass a budget, the president dissolved Parliament in January 2018. Polls were held that May. The sitting opposition parties—the CNRT, KHUNTO, and the 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. European Union (EU) observers called elections “transparent, well-managed and credible.” Polls were generally peaceful and orderly, despite a few violent incidents during the campaign period.

A new governing coalition of the PLP, KHUNTO, and Fretilin was formed in May 2020, three months after Parliament failed to approve a budget. The CNRT triggered that failure by abstaining but was ultimately unable to muster a new coalition of its own.

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

EU observers present for the 2022 presidential election noted that the National Election Commission (CNE) benefited from legal changes introduced after the last parliamentary election. The observers also reported that local stakeholders viewed the CNE and the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration as professional and independent.

Provisions governing elections are found across several pieces of legislation. EU observers reported that some of these laws “are not organised coherently” and that some of the framework is ambiguous in practice.

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, youth-aligned KHUNTO and the PLP, won 13 parliamentary seats between them in 2017. They joined AMP in the 2018 elections and formed a governing coalition with Fretilin in 2020.

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

Democratic transfers of power occur regularly in Timor-Leste.

While some smaller parties hold parliamentary seats, parties associated with the independence movement dominate. Fretilin, the CNRT, and the PLP have regularly participated in governments in recent years.

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.

While male independence leaders often hold key political roles and dominate elite political circles, 40 percent of parliamentarians are women. Four women ran for president in the 2022 elections. One-third of electoral-list candidates must be female. Women are massively underrepresented at the local level. Observers suggest that few women would seek office except for the existence of gender-parity legislation.

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

Elected officials generally determine government policy, though two governments have fallen over their inability to pass budgets in recent years. Xanana Gusmão of the CNRT retains influence over the government, though he is not in the parliamentary coalition. The Roman Catholic Church maintains significant influence over government policy.

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

Anticorruption bodies lack enough funding to operate effectively. The independent Anti-Corruption Commission (CAC) was established in 2009 with no powers of arrest or prosecution. It relies on the prosecutor general, with input from police and the courts, to prosecute corruption cases. An anticorruption law including protections for whistleblowers and witnesses came into force in 2021. That same year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provided manuals for the CAC to help it enforce the new law.

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

Despite attempts to make budgets more accessible, procurement processes remain largely opaque. Requests for public information are not always granted and may require applicants to undertake inconvenient travel. Information may be issued in Portuguese, which most Timorese do not speak. An anticorruption law includes rules on wealth and asset declarations that apply to civil servants, state agents, and their relatives.

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 and self-censorship due to the small media market with limited nongovernmental sources of support. However, journalists still produce articles critical of the government.

In May 2022, government minister Francisco Martins da Costa Pereira Jerónimo filed a defamation claim against Francisco Belo Simões da Costa, editor in chief of the Hatutan news outlet. Hatutan had published an article alleging that a government project was affected by corruption. In October, the national police summoned the editor in chief and another journalist at the Jornal Independente after it published articles discussing misconduct allegations against National Intelligence Service official Gastão Pereira.

Journalists reporting on allegations of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church have faced official scrutiny. In January 2022, the Tempo Timor outlet said it was subpoenaed over its coverage of a Roman Catholic priest’s report on abuse which openly identified victims. In June, journalist Raimundos Oki was placed under investigation for violating judicial secrecy after he interviewed girls who said they were abused by defrocked priest Richard Daschbach; Daschbach was convicted of child sexual abuse in 2021.

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

Timor-Leste is a secular state where freedom of religion is constitutionally protected. Some 97.6 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Religious tolerance is practiced, though 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 private discussion, and citizens are free to discuss political and social issues. Topics related to the 2006 unrest, where armed clashes between the police and mobilized civilian groups resulted in deaths and significant displacement, remain sensitive.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

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

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

In November 2022, the National Maubere Alliance began holding regular protests in front of Parliament, calling for increased spending for public services. Police detained 37 protesters in mid-November; 26 were later charged with a penal-code violation, but they were reportedly acquitted.

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) 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 Dili. The government is generally receptive to NGOs’ input.

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

Workers may form and join labor unions and bargain collectively, though a 2011 law requires written notification of demands and 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 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. Political and religious interference in the judicial system has been reported.

In 2021, Richard Daschbach was convicted of child sexual abuse and sentenced to 12 years in prison in proceedings that were considered a significant test of judicial independence. His conviction was upheld in July 2022.

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 leading to case backlogs. Use of Portuguese for court administration poses an obstacle, and shortages of interpreters have sometimes forced adjournment of trials.

Cases involving past human rights abuses require a panel including two international judges. The 2014 dismissals of international judges interrupted these cases and no new cases have been brought since.

Alternative methods of dispute resolution and customary law are widely used, though they lack enforcement mechanisms and have other shortcomings, including gender discrimination.

Many municipalities have no fixed courts and rely on mobile services established as an interim measure. Plans for a hybrid justice system, with more harmonization between formal and customary dispute resolution mechanisms, have been announced.

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 trouble accessing employment opportunities due to low rates of access to education and discrimination. Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals report cases of extreme physical violence from strangers and relatives, including cases of “corrective” rape and forced marriage. 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 authorities’ acceptance of marriage and birth certificates issued by religious entities. Muslims have reported discrimination in civil service hiring.

Timor-Leste is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, asylum seekers must apply for asylum within 72 hours of arriving under the 2017 Migration and Asylum Law.

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 relies on subsistence farming.

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 but practical aspects of doing business are complicated by inefficiencies in issuing permits, enforcing contracts, and accessing credit.

Property rights are complicated by past conflicts, ongoing disagreements, and unclear status of customary land rights. A national land law designed to establish formal tenure and to help resolve disputes through arbitration was enacted in 2017.

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 is widespread. Civil society groups have criticized the courts’ use of prison sentences for only the most severe cases, and few reported cases are investigated. A lack of training hampers investigatory procedures, including investigators’ failure to recognize or collect evidence.

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

Timor-Leste is a source and destination country for human trafficking. Timorese from rural areas are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, and children are sometimes placed in bonded labor.

Despite government efforts, including promulgation of a 2017 antitrafficking law, investigations declined for several years. However, the US State Department noted in its Trafficking in Persons 2022 report that investigations increased in its 2021–22 coverage period. The first trafficking conviction since 2018 was secured during that period.