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Nationalism and nostalgia win in Timor Leste

Asia Times - April 26, 2012

Anna Powles, Dili – In a vote influenced by nationalism and nostalgia, Timor Leste's voters overwhelmingly chose former defense force chief Jose Maria Vasconcelos, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Taur Matan Ruak, as the young country's next president.

In a highly anticipated second round presidential run off on April 16, Taur Matan Ruak defeated Fretilin party president Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, polling 61.2% to 38.8% of the vote and winning 11 of 13 national districts. His win notably encroached on Fretilin's stronghold eastern districts and included a decisive majority in the capital, Dili.

The vote was as much a triumph for Taur Matan Ruak as it was a signal of popular dissatisfaction with Fretilin, Timor Leste's largest political party, and rejection of the increasing parochialism of national politics.

Taur Matan Ruak's success has been attributed in large part to the backing of his political patron, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. A former rebel leader during Indonesian occupation, he has remained a popular figure despite accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement against his government.

Gusmao has proven himself particularly adept at coalition politics amid doubts about his capacity to transition from guerrilla leader to government leader. The Taur Matan Ruak-Gusmao political ticket effectively used the imagery of their shared resistance histories to promote the strength of their leadership in contemporary politics.

Although Gusmao's political clout cannot be underestimated, it was not the whole story behind Taur Matan Ruak's resounding win. Taur Matan Ruak also successfully tapped into rising popular discontent with the slow progress of development following a decade of independence. This includes dissatisfaction over issues of corruption, social and economic inequity, and the distribution of justice.

Drawing heavily on the interrelated concepts of nationalism and nostalgia, Taur Matan Ruak promoted the unifying concept of a renaissance in the independence struggle with the evocative campaign slogan "Together with you in the past, our blood intertwined towards our independence. Together again with you today, we toil towards a better future."

The central message was that while the first decade of independence was dedicated to state-building, the social and economic emancipation and participation of the people had yet to be achieved.

The mix of nationalism and nostalgia clearly resonated with grassroots voters. By calling upon Timorese to reject passivism and take an active role in everyday political decision-making, Taur Matan Ruak sought to invoke a sense of empowerment among the disenfranchised and positioned himself as the leader to lead the next wave in Timorese self-determination.

His leadership credentials have been drawn exclusively from his resistance pedigree and his support from traditional power bases. Significantly, Taur Matan Ruak courted the support of the Catholic Church, which remains a powerful institution within Timorese society.

Against this nationalist narrative, his lack of political experience appears to have worked distinctly in his political favor, suggesting to the electorate that he is unsullied by the excesses of power that have increasingly alienated the majority of Timorese voters.

Given the limited constitutional authority of the presidency over domestic policy, will Timor Leste's next president be able to deliver on his many ambitious campaign promises?

On the campaign trail, Taur Matan Ruak identified addressing the needs of two main groups – veterans and former combatants, and youth – as critical to peace and security given their occasional roles as challengers to the state.

Managing their expectations will be a fine line between the sense of entitlement instilled at the ballot box and the political limitations of the presidential office. It is unclear if the president-elect will be beset with the same frustrations shared by his predecessors, Gusmao and outgoing President Jose Ramos Horta, who both reached the realization after one term in office that real power lay in government.

The president plays a key role in the appointment of the prime minister, serves as supreme commander of the defense force, and exercises critical powers of veto over parliamentary legislation, judicial pardons, dissolution of government and parliament, constitutional reviews and national referendums. In light of Taur Matan Ruak's strong domestic focus, the presidency's powers will provide considerable leverage to his agenda.

Next democratic test

Speculation is rife over what Taur Matan Ruak's decisive victory will mean for national parliamentary elections due on July 7. The Taur Matan Ruak-Gusmao ticket represents a potentially significant bloc. There is no guarantee, however, that this electoral success will be replicated at the parliamentary level, nor is the alliance between the two former resistance commanders without its own tensions.

Given the landslide support received by Taur Matan Ruak, Gusmao would be wise to hitch his future fortunes to that of the President-elect and reinvent himself as distinct from the Alliance for a Parliamentary Majority (AMP) of which his party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), is the leading coalition partner.

Despite the electoral rout, Guterres – and by extension Fretilin – enjoyed an increase in support from 28% in the first round presidential election to 38% in the final run off by picking up votes from the defeated first round candidates, including Ramos Horta and leader of the Democratic Party, Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo.

It could be argued that the Achilles' heel of Guterres's presidential bid was the Fretilin party itself and its failure to accurately gauge the electorate's political mood despite five years in opposition. For instance, the heated rhetoric and charged campaign rallies by the self-proclaimed Fretilin militants was wholly out of step with the mood of the violence-weary populace. Rumors that Fretilin would be open to forming a coalition with its rivals, if true, raises questions about the party's political future.

Much has been made of the alliance formed between Ramos Horta and Lasama following their mutual defeat during the first round of the presidential election. Pundits believe the alliance aims to serve a kingmaker role in the upcoming parliamentary elections and provide Ramos Horta with the numbers to challenge Gusmao's leadership, including potentially for the prime ministership itself.

The nature of Timorese coalition politics, however, cautions against early predictions as the horse-trading has only just begun. Recent statements by Lasama that his party is open to forming a coalition with Gusmao's CNRT if it wins a parliamentary majority is indicative of his political expedience and underscores Ramos Horta's political quandary in the wake of his falling out with former ally Gusmao. Coupled with alleged fractures within Lasama's Democratic Party, Ramos Horta may yet seek alternatives to the alliance.

The relatively peaceful presidential elections have been touted widely as a democratic success. That owes in large part to the conflict-weariness of the Timorese people, the growing maturity of the political process, and the zero tolerance approach to political violence exhibited by the national police force. The chief of the defense force, Major General Lere Anan Timur, gave potential election spoilers three options: the hospital, the prison, or the grave.

Lere's statement, instances of political intimidation by uniformed soldiers at polling stations, and the visual imagery of Taur Matan Ruak and Gusmao in military uniform on campaign billboards and ballot papers, signals the resurgence of the military in national politics and is expected to play a role at the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste has cited the absence of significant electoral violence as a precursor to their departure at the end of 2012. The real stability test, however, will be at the parliamentary polls where the political dividends – and pay-offs – will be much greater.

[Anna Powles, formerly an adviser to the Timorese government, is a security analyst and author. She is currently in Timor Leste consulting for several international agencies and researching a book on the 2006 political crisis. She may be reached at powlesar@gmail.com.]

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