Timor votes: The Return of Ramos-Horta

Nobel Prize winner José Ramos-Horta, the main international voice of Timor-Leste during the territory’s 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation is set to become President for the second time, with a clear win in the second round of the Presidential elections held this week. Antonio Sampaio reports from Dili. 

The vote means not only a significant loss for the incumbent, Francisco Guterres Lú-Olo, but also, indirectly, for the three parties who supported his campaign, and which are currently in Government: the President’s own Fretilin, the Prime-Minister’s PLP and KHUNTO.

Together, the three parties reached almost 47% of the primary vote in the 2017 legislative elections but with counting all but completed, it is clear their support has fallen across the country. It is difficult to say who is more to blame, as Fretilin, traditionally has accounted for around 30% of the electorate.

At play during the election has been the clash of of the "founding fathers" : Xanana Gusmão and his CNRT party and Fretilin, led by Mari Alkatiri.

Symbolic of this, the ballot papers for the second round of the Timorese presidential elections portrayed not only the two competing candidates, José Ramos-Horta and Francisco Guterres Lú-Olo, but this decades-old political fight.

In addition to the photos of the most popular candidates from the first round on March 19, are both the flag of the Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin), and the face of Xanana Gusmão.

For decades the on-off relationship between Xanana Gusmão and Fretilin, and in particular its leader, Mari Alkatiri, has marked the Timorese political landscape. Xanana Gusmão and Mari Alkatiri have not spoken for several years, with the two political forces maintaining a constant stream of mutual criticism.

Timor Leste's fast expanding capital, Dili / photo USAID

Again, the fight has delayed the much-debated generational shift in the new democracy's leadership, with Timor-Leste once again led by the 75-year old Xanana Gusmão. Once a rebel fighting the Indonesian occupiers, Gusmao became the first President of the independent East Timor, serving from 2002 to 2007. He then became its fourth prime minister, serving from 2007 to 2015.

Just on 37 percent of Timor Leste's population is under 14 years old, and growing quickly. The nation faces major fundamental planning issues, from health and education to town planning and transport. In the background of this election has been the much-discussed Tasi Mane petroleum infrastructure project, framed by some as the nation's savior, and by others as a crippling financial millstone.   

 The electoral situation this year is almost a repeat of the 2007 vote where both leaders faced-off in the second round of the Presidential elections and Ramos-Horta came out the winner.

 While in the semi-presidential system of Timor-Leste the President is less powerful than his regional counterparts, the last few years have shown that the constitution allows the head of State significant powers which include dissolving parliament and sacking the Government.

And if Ramos-Horta goes ahead with the demands made by Xanana’s CNRT for on-going political support, Timor-Leste could see in the months ahead significant political instability.

CNRT has demanded Parliament be dissolved and early elections called – currently they are set for 2023 – and Ramos-Horta himself has hinted at the possibility of an alternative solution, involving a censure motion of Government and the setting up of a new transition Government to carry over until 2023.

A dissolution of Parliament, should it go ahead, would force a further showdown in Parliament and in the courts and, according to some constitutional experts, might only be available for Ramos-Horta six months after his swearing in.

A censure motion would require a shift in the current majority, which supports the Government, perhaps with some MPs crossing the aisles.

Some 37% of Timor Leste's population is under 14 years/ photo USAID

Observers note those MPs could come from KHUNTO, the party connected with the martial arts group Korka and who has in the past few years jumped across majorities. Even at this election, while the party was formally supporting Lú-Olo, both campaigns recognize the allegiance might not be 100% across party ranks.

Members of the party have privately expressed their support of Ramos-Horta and the party leader, José Naimori, has sought to have a dialogue with Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmão, even while supporting, publicly, Lú-Olo.

Whatever the outcome of the political debate, a crucial issue for the country remains the economy. A dwindling Petroleum Fund remains the core source of funds for almost all government spending, with remittances from Timorese workers around the world rising to become another large source of income for families in the country.

Per capita GDP has fallen to levels close to those at the beginning of the decade with many companies facing hardship. Thousands of graduated Timorese enter a job market that remains stale, with little or no options beyond joining the ranks of the already inflated public service, or migrating.

Sorting the economic issues requires an intense working relationship between the President and the government. Ramos-Horta has talked up his international credentials in accessing investors.  – and the Government.

But above all there will need to be a semblance of political stability, as Government spending continues to be key to get the emerging economy moving.

The new president will be sworn in on May 20th.  

Banner Image : Jose Ramos-Horta (L) and Xanana Gusmao


- Asia Media Centre