Former president of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta (C) greets supporters after he officially announced he would run again for office in the upcoming presidential election, in Dili on 23 January 2022. (Photo: Valentino Dariel Sousa / AFP)

Timor-Leste’s Presidential Elections: A Quiet or Rowdy Neighbour for Indonesia?

Published

There have been contentions in Timor Leste’s political landscape in the run-up to the presidential elections. But Indonesia has less to worry about, given that political parties across the spectrum support strong relations with Jakarta.

All the political parties in Timor Leste see Indonesia as a neighbour with whom friendly relations are needed. There is no need for concern within Indonesia on this question, whatever mix of parties and figures dominate at any moment. However, it remains important to assess the prospects of stability versus upheaval. On 19 March, presidential elections will take place in Timor Leste, with a second-round scheduled for 19 April if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first round. There are now 16 confirmed presidential candidates.

The elections have come after four years of continuous tensions between the country’s two largest parties, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) and National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). New parties have since emerged. This state of ongoing tension has meant that for a large part of the period since 2017, the government has operated without an annual budget. It has relied on monthly injections of funds from its sovereign fund savings equivalent to 1/12th of the 2019 budget.

The political feud between FRETILIN and the CNRT started in 2017 and 2018. In the 2017 presidential elections, Xanana Gusmao, central leader of the Timorese resistance against Indonesian occupation and now head of CNRT, joined forces with FRETILIN to support Francisco Lu’Olo Guterres as President. In the following parliamentary elections, FRETILIN and CNRT both scored 29 per cent of the vote, but FRET­ILIN came out with more seats than CNRT. Even so, CNRT was able to form a coalition with two smaller parties — namely, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and the youth-oriented, Khunto party — with a majority in parliament able to form a government.

However, President Guterres vetoed the appointment of almost all the people nominated as Ministers by the CNRT. As a result, for a time, Timor Leste had a government comprising Ministers only from the two smaller parties in the parliamentary majority and with several ministries vacant. Since then, there have been manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres by FRETILIN and CNRT. By 2021, the situation had ‘stabilised’ with a government when the PLP and Khunto defected and established informal cooperation with FRETILIN, with FRETILIN holding several key ministries in the government.

CNRT has maintained that during this period, the President and Fretilin have acted unconstitutionally, including illegally seizing the Speakership of the Parliament. This is disputed by FRETILIN. CNRT has also lost court cases on these issues. However, they remain under debate.

President Guterres is standing again and has received the endorsement of FRETILIN. CNRT has nominated former President Jose Ramos Horta as their candidate, and he is campaigning with the full support of Xanana Gusmao. CNRT supported Horta with several recommendations, one being that if a new majority cannot be negotiated among the parties in the current parliament, the parliament should be disbanded and early elections held.

Meanwhile, the head of FRETILIN, Mari Alkatiri, has warned against such a move, stating in a TV comment that it could provoke ‘civil war’. Alkatiri has also stated that cooperation with Xanana Gusmao is no longer possible.

Should Horta be elected, the situation can potentially see a confrontation between the President and the FRETILIN parliamentary majority — if the current alignment of parties there holds beyond 19 March. If such a confrontation occurs, the institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution will come under significant stress.

While there are 16 candidates standing, the crucial dynamic for these elections is that between FRETILIN and CNRT, that is, between Guterres and Horta working with Xanana Gusmao. While FRETILIN has endorsed Guterres, several other candidates have come out of the Fretilin milieu. The most prominent of these is former Armed Forces chief, Lere Anan Timur, who resigned from his position to contest the elections.

An early social media poll gave Horta over 50 per cent, with Lere and Guterres garnering around 25 per cent between them, but professional poll results are still to come. While many commentators are sceptical that Horta can win an absolute majority in the first round, it is surely what the Horta campaign aims for. Horta will need the strongest possible win if he decides to call an early election in the face of opposition from a parliamentary majority. A decisive victory may also weaken the resolve of smaller parties currently aligned with FRETILIN.

Should (Jose Ramos) Horta be elected, the situation can potentially see a confrontation between the President and the FRETILIN parliamentary majority — if the current alignment of parties there holds beyond 19 March. If such a confrontation occurs, the institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution will come under significant stress.

Horta and CNRT have also been reinforced by a new formation, the UMDP (United Patriotic Democratic Movement). This is a coalition of sectoral organisations (students, academics, farmers, artists, resistance veterans and others) and smaller political parties, such as the Timorese Socialist Party, Frente Mudanca and others. At a recent congress of the UMDP, Horta was elected its President. As it is a new organisation, it is not clear yet what impact this extra support will have on Horta’s campaign. A key figure in the UMDP is Avelino Coehlo, the President of the Socialist Party of Timor. Avelino, along with CNRT figure and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dionisio Soares, have been appointed official spokespersons for Horta’s and Xanana’s campaigns. Avelino has become one of the most frequent political commentators on Timorese television, a medium that reaches most of the population.

Pre-campaign activities have already begun, and the campaign proper will begin soon. It will be then that tensions may intensify, although all campaigners have been calling for a calm and orderly campaign. The extent to which the prospect of disbanding the parliament for early elections becomes a source of heated contention will be a key indicator. Given the huge role that Indonesia plays in Timor Leste’s trade and its difficult history, this indicator will be closely watched, both within the country and outside.

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Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.