Timor Leste’s New President: Polarisation Defused or Postponed?
The victory of Dr Jose Ramos Horta in Timor’s recent presidential elections has done little to defuse the political polarisation that has afflicted the country in recent years.
On 20 May, Dr Jose Ramos Horta was sworn in as the new president of Timor Leste. The solid win by the president-elect, however, does not solve the internecine conflicts between parties at different ends of the political spectrum.
Dr Horta bagged his victory despite the 19 March presidential elections seeing a crowded field of 16 candidates. To an external observer, Timor’s politics can be confusing, given the huge number of political parties and their shifting associations. Dr Horta does not belong to any party but was nominated by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). He won 46.6 per cent of the votes, more than double the 22.1 per cent of his nearest rival, Francisco Lu’Olo Guterres from Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN). As neither received more than 50 per cent in the first round, a second round was held a month later and Horta won 62.1 per cent of the vote against Mr Luolo’s 37.9 per cent.
Dr Horta was supported by one parliamentary party, the CNRT, compared to the three parties that constitute the current parliamentary majority, namely, the long established FRETILIN party, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and Enrich the National Unity of the Sons of Timor (Khunto). However, Dr Horta was also supported by the country’s pre-eminent political figure, Xanana Gusmao and a coalition of parties and organisations not yet represented in parliament, foremost the Timorese Socialist Party. Of the 5,000 identity cards and signatures presented to the Supreme Court of Justice to register Horta’s candidacy, PST (Partido Socialista de Timor or Socialist Party of Timor) sources state that 3,000 were gathered by them.
Underscoring the shifting sands of Timorse politics, Mr Xanana and the CNRT had joined forces with FRETILIN in 2017 to support the presidential campaign of Mr Lu’Olo. Mr Xanana’s move to support Dr Horta proved to be a winning move. During both campaign periods, Xanana and Horta campaigned as a duo everywhere.
But Dr Horta’s win has not resolved the running feuds between CNRT at one end and the coalition of ruling parties at the other. A contradiction was posed immediately after the May 20 election, given that the parties commanding a parliamentary majority were not able to achieve a majority vote for their candidate. This tension was deepened in that CNRT agreed to nominate Dr Horta, on the condition that he would dissolve Parliament and call an early election. CNRT considered that Parliament — indeed President Guiterres — had acted unconstitutionally on some questions.
The counters by the parties commanding a majority came thick and fast. Essentially, they were effected to undermine the power of the new president. Almost immediately, the three governing parties held a press conference stating they would resist any attempt to force an early election. They also quickly announced that they would be putting a request to the parliament for an extra USD$1.1 billion dollars for expenditure on support for veterans of the anti-Indonesian struggle and other policies, as they had promised in the campaign. The request was criticised by Timor’s premier development policy think tank. Dr Horta said on 28 April that as President, he would veto the request. CNRT also opposed the request for these additional funds.
Dr Horta bagged his victory despite the 19 March presidential elections seeing a crowded field of 16 candidates. To an external observer, Timor’s politics can be confusing, given the huge number of political parties and their shifting associations.
A short time after that, the government announced that it would bring a Bill to the Parliament that would criminalise any moves, with gaol sentence penalties, by the President to bring ‘coercion against a constitutional body’. This announcement was also clearly a move to up the pressure on the new President, so as to deter him from moving against Parliament.
Both the request for the extra USD$1.1 billion and the new law criminalising moves by the President against state institutions were expedited through Parliament in record time. They were signed by the outgoing President before his authority expired.
While these developments were still unfolding, President-elect Horta moved to defuse the situation. Timor is facing an unstable external environment, he said, with tensions between the United States and China and the war in Ukraine. All these bigger trends would affect Timor. As such, Dr Horta said that he did not see the dissolution of Parliament and early parliamentary elections as the priority. Immediate action to deal with malnutrition, he said, should be the priority. He emphasised the need for dialogue. He visited Fretilin Secretary-General, Mari Alkatiri, in the Fretilin office to affirm this stance. In terms of dialogue, however, he pointedly stated that it was now up to FRETILIN to reach out to CNRT and Xanana Gusmao.
However, Mr Xanana did not appear to back down. On 14 May, he stated that the CNRT has not given up on a dissolution of parliament and early elections, but noted that a ‘realistic’ approach was needed. The PST continues to advocate for the original stance adopted by the Horta campaign, which includes the possibility of calling an early election.
A worrying sign here is that there has been no meeting yet between Xanana Gusmao and the FRETILIN leadership. As Parliament has already agreed to the request for the USD$1.1 billion and passed the new Law that threatens any president that moves against Parliament, there does not seem to be much that the new President can do, despite his disagreements with the new decisions. Dr Horta is, however, referring the law requesting additional funds to the courts to test its procedural validity.
While possible, it is unlikely that the President will still try to dissolve Parliament and call for early elections. The earliest the President could decide on an election date within normal processes would be January 2023, with elections then being held in March. If there is no early election, the question remains as to whether the sharpening of polarisation has been defused or simply postponed.
Up until now these divisions have been articulated around grievances around political tactics but not so much focussed on issues relating to socio-economic conditions. Based on the Poverty in Timor-Leste survey, 41.8 per cent of the country’s inhabitants lived below the national poverty line in 2014. There is little evidence of significant improvement since then. This is a factor which may have assisted Dr Horta in his campaign against the incumbent. In his interview with the Lusa news agency, Xanana also talked about economic failures. It is possible that tension around the dissolution of Parliament has been defused (albeit temporarily), but now attention will shift to weightier issues: that of social-economic grievances.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.