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Brothers in electoral arms in East Timor

Asia Times - March 26, 2012

Anna Powles, Dili The second round run-off of Timor Leste's presidential elections scheduled for mid-April will pit two heavyweights of the decade-old country's past resistance struggle and signals a shift towards a new era of nationalist politics.

Of the dozen candidates who contested the first round contest on March 17, Fretilin party president Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres and former defense chief Jose Maria Vasconcelos, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Taur Matan Ruak, respectively won 28% and 25% of the vote and are expected to fight a tight second round race.

The electoral demise of incumbent President Jose Ramos Horta, placed third with 17%, has signaled a decisive shift away from the internationalist stance that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had come to represent in Timorese national politics.

Despite the constitutional limitations of the presidential office, Ramos Horta during his five-year term increasingly became a thorn in the side of the Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) government and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao over matters of accountability and transparency.

Ramos Horta's challenge of Gusmao's management of the state coffers occurred only days prior to Gusmao's announcement that his ruling CNRT party would support Taur Matan Ruak's candidacy. This was a clear betrayal of the carefully crafted image of the international diplomat and former guerrilla leader united at the helm of Timor Leste, also known as East Timor, since achieving independence in 2002.

The souring of relations between the two national icons was not lost on the voting public. Ramos Horta's low-key campaign, in stark contrast to his flamboyant populist image, was perhaps in recognition that the worm was about to turn in Timorese politics.

Both of the second-round presidential candidates represent a renaissance in nationalist politics. Unlike Ramos Horta, who largely avoided partisan politics through an agenda of national reconciliation, consensus and unity, Guterres's and Taur Matan Ruak's grass roots power bases dominate the political landscape.

Guterres is buttressed by Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), the country's largest political party whose credentials as the past bastion of the Timorese resistance struggle were forged during Indonesia's 24-year occupation. This lineage has imbued a fervent militancy among elements of the party's support base.

Taur Matan Ruak, a former resistance guerrilla leader and more recently chief of the Timorese defense force, has the loyalty and backing of the military. Despite transitioning successfully from a guerrilla force to professional army, the military has remained a stalwart of the past resistance struggle and has often challenged the legal constraints placed upon it following independence, including civilian oversight and a constitutionally limited domestic role.

The resurgence of nationalist politics coincides with the scheduled departure of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste and the Australian-led International Stabilization Force. After 10 years of checkered international stewardship, uneven development, a widening wealth gap, and mismanaged expectations, it is little wonder that Timorese political leaders are returning to grass-roots politicking and popular national narratives to build legitimacy.

The second round of the presidential elections will be a contest between resistance pedigrees and traditional versus political power bases. Both Guterres and Taur Matan Ruak have substantial resistance credentials, although the latter has bid to conflate past resistance hierarchies with traditional power structures to gain an upper hand.

Taur Matan Ruak has claimed that Guterres, as his subordinate within the resistance struggle, should not run against him as culturally it would be unacceptable for a "younger brother" (alin) to run against an "older or big brother" (maun or maun bo'ot).

Guterres's campaign platform has consistently reflected Fretilin's ideology of mauberism, an appropriation of the derogatory Portuguese term maubere, referring to ordinary Timorese and embodies the call for the rights of the indigenous population. (Timor Leste was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century until 1975; Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor later that same year.)

New generation, old traditions

Significantly, neither Guterres nor Taur Matan Ruak are part of the original resistance-related "1975 leadership", thereby signaling on the surface a transition to a new generation of leaders. However, it could be argued that the real contest in April will be between Guterres's Fretilin party and Gusmao, a surviving member of the "1975 leadership".

The exploitation and manipulation of resistance politics, traditional power structures and cultural symbolism reflect a mythologizing of national and historical narratives and, in turn, a new future direction of nation-building. Exploitation of a growing sense of entitlement among disgruntled and disenfranchised groups, including among military veterans, has been critical to winning support at the ballot box.

Whether supporters of the defeated candidate will concede peacefully will be a test of both candidates' ability to manage expectations and commitment to the democratic process. The next five years will also be critical for Timor Leste's economic development, including crucial decisions over how to manage the small country's large but potentially short-lived oil wealth.

Of the two candidates, Guterres has considerably more political experience, serving as Fretilin's president both while in government and in the opposition. Taur Matan Ruak has little experience in the political sphere and during his service as chief of the defense force was viewed as unable to manage internal army disputes, including among petitioners.

Both have stated throughout the campaign that if elected they will not engage in patronage politics or favor any interest groups. It will be difficult, however, for either to maintain full independence from their respective power bases.

Taur Matan Ruak has explicitly stated two campaign policies that focus on the military and veterans. Given their domestic political interests, it is also likely that once in power either candidate would take an even more interventionist stance in regard to domestic issues than Ramos Horta.

With less than a month before the runoff election, the pork-barreling has already begun. Ramos Horta, speaker of the National Parliament and leader of the Democratic Party Fernando Lasama Araujo, who polled a close fourth in the first round race, and Vice Prime Minister Jose Luis "Lu Gu" Guterres, who placed fifth, will prove critical to the success of either candidate.

Rogerio Lobato, a former Fretilin Minister of the Interior, has announced that he will support Guterres, an endorsement which will effectively split the veteran vote Taur Matan Ruak relies on for considerable support. Lasama has indicated that his support will be contingent on his party being rewarded at the parliamentary level.

Jose Luis Guterres, leader of the small Frente Mudansa party, is also likely to give preference to the candidate who offers the greatest political dividends. Coalition politics will therefore reduce the race for the presidency to a jockeying between the minor parties to secure tribute and favor.

Somewhat fittingly, Ramos Horta could yet play the role of king-maker. He has already announced that he will form an alliance with Lasama's Democratic Party, which will create a significant bloc leading into the parliamentary elections scheduled for June.

The move will consolidate approximately 36% of the vote attained by both men in the first presidential round and is reminiscent of the critical support Lasama gave to Ramos Horta in the second round run off of the 2007 elections which catapulted Ramos Horta over Guterres.

Frustrated by the legal limitations of the presidency, it is not surprising that Ramos Horta is considering a return to parliamentary politics. How this new alliance will impact on the presidential race will be determined by what deals Lasama makes to ensure that his party, with its newest and most famous ally, has a significant role in the next coalition government.

[Dr Anna Powles was an adviser to the Timorese Government following the 2006 crisis and is currently based in Timor Leste consulting for a number of international organizations and donors. She is also conducting research for a book on the 2006 crisis and the international stabilization operation. She may be reached at powlesar@gmail.com.]

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