Timor Leste votes for more of the same

The new nation’s fourth general election will return an incumbent ‘unity’ government to power, a vote for peace and stability after years of conflict

Originally published by Asia Times (July 24, 2017)

 

Preliminary results from Timor-Leste’s general election indicate the two largest political parties, which formed a de facto ruling partnership in 2015, have retained a majority of votes.

The country’s 750,000 registered voters, of which a fifth went to the ballot for the first time, turned out on Saturday to select their 65 parliamentary representatives.

It was the fourth general election to take place since the half-island nation, also known as East Timor, gained independence from Indonesia in 2002. It was also the first that didn’t require supervision by the United Nations.

The official tally is not expected until early August but indications are that it was a “business as usual result, with one significant twist,” said Michael Leach, a professor in politics and international relations at Swinburne University in Australia.

Fretilin, the party of the independence movement, is thought to have won the most votes: 30% based on the count of nine-tenths of ballots.

The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), which won the majority at the last election in 2012, came second this year with an estimated 28% of votes.

Fretilin is expected to take 23 seats in parliament; the CNRT will have one less. Despite its success, Fretilin will only be able to form a minority government in parliament without support of another party.

It is possible that it entices the three smaller parties that secured seats into a coalition agreement. But most analysts expect Fretilin and the CNRT to continue with their “unity government” post-election.

In early 2015, Xanana Gusmao, a national independence hero and leader of the CNRT, resigned as prime minister and nominated a Fretilin minister, Rui Maria de Araujo, to take his place.

Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s general secretary, has expressed interest in continuing the relationship with the CNRT in the coming years.
In fact, neither party engaged in mudslinging against one another on the campaign trail.

At the presidential election four months ago, the CNRT publicly backed Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, who easily won.

With Fretilin tipping the balance of seats, it is also likely that Araujo will now continue as prime minister. Another possibility, however, is that the CNRT asks for a return of favors from two years ago, i.e. now that Fretilin is the majority party in the coalition a CNRT candidate is named prime minister.

“There is little doubt that many CNRT members are keen to see a redress of what many perceive as recently overly favorable treatment of Fretilin,” said Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Deakin University.

This year’s presidential and parliamentary elections have seen little violence and few claims of fraud. Timor Leste was ranked the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia on the Economist’s latest Democracy Index.

“This election should serve as a growing foundation for future elections to build upon and further consolidate the country’s democracy,” said Derek Luyten, regional director for Asia at the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy advocacy group.

Fretilin has lauded the election result as a sign of the public’s support for consensus politics. “Now we will look forward to guaranteed stability, ongoing development and to bring people out of poverty,” Alkatiri told reporters on Sunday afternoon.

However, it wasn’t an overwhelming vote for the status-quo, nor a clear vote of confidence in the incumbent.

When all ballots are counted, it is likely that the two largest parties combined will have taken around 60% of the popular vote. At the last general election in 2012 they won closer to 70%, taking all but ten of the 65 seats in parliament.

Moreover, at the previous election in 2007, seven parties won seats in the legislature; only four parties won seats in 2012. Such pluralism was again evident at Saturday’s election.

“The passing of the 4% threshold” – which is needed to win a seat – “by five political parties is a positive sign for democracy,” Luyten said.

The People’s Liberation Party (PLP), a new political party headed by the former president Taur Matan Ruak, is thought to have taken roughly 10% of the votes, winning eight seats in parliament.

The PLP’s relative success was “significant” as it “openly challenged the mega-project driven development policies of the previous government,” said Leach. Indeed, the PLP campaigned against the extravagant spending of the incumbent administration, which it claims has not benefited ordinary people.

In recent years, analysts have stringently warned that the current administration’s big-spending policies could soon lead Timor-Leste into a financial black hole. Almost 90% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and state budget is derived from petroleum revenues.

But its largest oil and gas field, Bayu-Undan, is predicted to run dry by 2023. The estimated US$16 billion currently in its sovereign wealth fund could be depleted within a decade if current rates of government expenditure are not reduced.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party (PD) is expected to win seven seats, one less than five years ago, which is likely due to the death in 2015 of its popular, former leader, Fernando “Lasama” de Araújo.

One of the biggest electoral surprises was Khunto, an inexperienced party that is thought to have secured five seats in parliament. For many, it is seen as a “militant party”, Kingsbury said, given its connections to the country’s martial arts gangs, which have been partly responsible for Timor-Leste’s instability in the past.

Some of the groups have been made illegal in recent years. Nonetheless, the party “appears to have benefited from the rise in the number of younger voters that have come on to the electoral roll,” Kingsbury added.

The population’s median age is 19 (the voting age is 17) and almost a fifth of the country’s 750,000 registered voters headed to the ballots for the first time. Many are from so-called “independence babies”: those born after Timor Leste’s referendum on independence in 1999.

The question now for the smaller parties is whether to accept ministerial positions, if indeed, any are offered, as is usual in Timor-Leste’s politics. For example, the Minister of State, Coordinator of Social Affairs and Minister of Education has been a PD politician for most of the decade.

While the power-sharing arrangement has given Timor-Leste stability, analysts claim it has also deprived the country of political checks and balances. When Ruak was president he took it upon himself to vocally criticize the government, often going beyond the constitutional role of head of state.

It is not an easy decision for the smaller parties. A ministerial position might allow one of their politicians to push the party’s agenda. But in a minority position, the two largest parties do not necessarily need to agree to any proposed reforms or programs.

Alternatively, the three smaller parties might instead form an opposition bloc within parliament. At this year’s presidential election they all backed the same candidate, Antonio da Conceicao.

Now with a combined 18 seats in parliament they might be able to provide a measure of stiff opposition to the ‘unity’ government’s plans.

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