In the presidential election run-off in East Timor last week, the front-runner from the left-wing party Fretilin, Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres, was comfortably defeated by Taur Matan Ruak, the former military chief and protégé of Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão.
Fretilin, an acronym for the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, conducted an effective but bitter guerrilla war against Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999.
After the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999, the United Nations ran the country until independence in 2002. Australian peace-keepers played a key role in restoring stability to the country after pro-Indonesia militias engaged in an orgy of murder and destruction after the independence vote in 1999.
The UN handed over East Timor to Fretilin in 2002, and the impoverished country endured Fretilin’s misrule until the first post-independence elections were held in 2007.
In the 2007 elections, José Ramos-Horta was elected President with 69 per cent of the vote, defeating Fretilin’s Lú-Olo, who won 31 per cent. After the parliamentary elections, Xanana Gusmão formed a coalition government with three smaller pro-democracy parties.
While East Timor has certainly improved since 2007, the key problems for most of the country’s 1.1 million people — particularly long-term unemployment and poverty, exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure and education — have not been addressed.
For many outside observers, and for Fretilin itself, the outcome of the recent presidential election was a shock. Fretilin’s Lú-Olo led the first round of the presidential election, with 28.5 per cent of the vote, ahead of Ruak who won just over 25 per cent.
Lú-Olo himself had confidently declared that he was ready to take over after the presidential election.
Left-wing Australian observers also anticipated a Fretilin victory. Tim Anderson, a lecturer at Sydney University and long-time pro-Fretilin activist, wrote in April: “The Presidential second round is beginning to favour the Fretilin candidate.… Whoever wins the presidency, the most likely parliamentary outcome is a Fretilin-led coalition.” (New Matilda, April 2, 2012).
And an Australian union official, Chris White, wrote: “Too many media reports failed to highlight Lú-Olo winning the most votes. He is likely to just win and be an excellent President” (On Line Opinion, April 12, 2012).
Despite the fact that Fretilin is the country’s largest single party, there is still widespread revulsion at the way it ran the country after independence.
Between the first round of the presidential election, where there were 12 candidates, and the second round, where there were two, the Fretilin vote went up from 28.5 per cent of the vote to 39 per cent, while Ruak’s vote rose from 25 per cent to 61 per cent.
The presidential election is a preview of what could happen in the more important parliamentary elections, to be held early in July.
It seems certain that the Fretilin vote is likely to stay under 30 per cent, as it did in the 2007 elections, while Xanana Gusmão’s party, CNRT, can be expected to win about 25 per cent, while the remaining 45 per cent will be shared among a plethora of other parties.
The wild card in the parliamentary election is the wily Timorese politician José Ramos-Horta, who since independence has held the posts of Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President from 2007 to 2012.
After falling out with Xanana Gusmão over issues of corruption and the lack of economic development, Horta was dropped by Gusmão and, as a result, ran third in the first round of the recent presidential election.
After being eliminated from the presidential race, Horta said he was stepping down from public office, but a few days later announced he would form an alliance for the parliamentary election with the up-and-coming Democratic Party (PD), led by a hero of the independence struggle, Fernando “Lasama” de Araújo, now speaker in the Timorese Parliament.
The Democratic Party is a junior partner in the present coalition government, but has been openly critical of Gusmão.
If the same pattern of voting is repeated in the parliamentary election, the Horta-PD alliance would command around 35 per cent of the vote, far more than either Fretilin or Gusmão.
This indicates that a coalition government will be formed after the next election, depending on which party is able to produce a stable parliamentary majority.
Although Taur Matan Ruak would clearly prefer Gusmão to remain as Prime Minister, Ruak stood for election as an independent, and on principle would have to offer the prime ministership to the leaders of the other major parties if they were able to form a parliamentary majority.
There are a number of possible scenarios, some of which are positively frightening. But if the election outcome is a coalition government supported by a majority of the people of East Timor, this will help provide the stability needed for development to occur over the next five years.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.