When East Timor’s outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, won office in 2007 by a crushing 69 per cent, many outsiders attributed the victory to his high profile as a campaigner for the country during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. There is no doubt that Ramos-Horta was well known and well liked within East Timor, as well as outside, but his first round vote was a more modest 21 per cent.
So, too, when Taur Matan Ruak stood for the presidency last month, he achieved a respectable but modest 26 per cent. On Monday, his voted jumped to just over 61 per cent. It was backing and organisation by Xanana Gusmao that elevated Ramos-Horta to his unassailable final position. It was Xanana Gusmao’s backing that also secured the Taur Matan Ruak’s victory over Fretilin candidate Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres.
Democratic politics is not – and should not be – about one particular individual. But there is little doubt that former resistance leader, president and now prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, has a charismatic status, coupled with a wily political instinct, which casts him as the towering force in East Timor’s politics.
Many, including other political actors, had believed that the result of presidential vote would be much closer than it transpired. This meant that the parliamentary elections of 7 July were expected to be a more open race, with no single party expected to achieve a majority in its own right and likely coalition options for government less clear.
With no single party likely to achieve a majority in the parliamentary elections, the question was who would be best placed to form a coalition. Fretilin has done well to rebuild its vote from its 2007 defeat. Similarly, the current ‘parliamentary alliance’ government led by Xanana Gusmao has been notable for, among other things, tensions between coalition members.
With its own candidate out of the presidential race, the influential Democratic Party (PD) remained neutral in Monday’s vote. Similarly, out-going President Jose Ramos-Horta, who supports PD in the parliamentary elections, also remained neutral.
But, on the spread of presidential voter returns, it appears that most voters who had supported PD or Ramos-Horta rejected Lu-Olo and accepted the candidate supported by Xanana Gusmao’s party, CNRT. The message this will send to the Democratic Party’s leaders is that, should they decide to join Fretilin in a coalition government, their support base could desert them.
Politics is always a tough game and nowhere more so than in a society devastated by a massively damaging war, on top of all of the problems of trying to develop this still dirt-poor country. Political deals are therefore often done despite personal differences and this may again be the case following the parliamentary elections.
It is this sometime fraught environment that has also led to outbursts of violence, as opposite camps compete for scarce resources. The 2007 elections were held very much in the shadow of the 2006 violence that brought East Timor to the brink of civil war. Despite a strong international security presence, those elections were marred by considerable violence and much destruction.
By contrast, the 2012 elections have been remarkably calm. There have been a few, relatively minor disturbances compared to 2007. But as the shape of the political landscape becomes increasingly clear following Monday’s ballot, tensions may again rise.
In particular, Fretilin appears adept at turning out a consistently strong single party vote, if to date less able to secure majority support from non-Fretilin parties. Should it receive the single largest vote, as it did in 2007, Fretilin will probably claim, as it has done since 2007, that under Section 106. Of the East Timorese constitution, the president is obliged to select the new prime minister from the party with the most votes in parliament.
Had Lu-Olo won the presidency, this would have been the likely outcome. However, Ruak may adopt his predecessor’s interpretation of the constitution, which says the prime minister can also be selected on the basis of commanding an alliance constituting a majority on the floor of the parliament. This is where the real tensions will be, as they were in 2007.
The UN is scheduled to draw down its presence by the end of the year and the Australian-led Stabilisation Force is scheduled to withdraw. The largely peaceful political environment to date suggests it is now time for the international community to let East Timor stand on its own two feet, and that is the preferred option within East Timor.
How the country goes into the parliamentary elections and, more importantly, how it comes out of them, will be the true test of whether East Timor has genuinely consolidated its democratic process. It will also be the test of whether East Timor can remain a stable, developing state.