East Timor: a tough road ahead

The election cycle of 2007 offers the last chance for the current generation of leaders to bring stability and progress to troubled East Timor.


After the relatively violence-free presidential elections in East Timor in April-May 2007, many hope that the country may finally be heading on a road to normality after more than two years of internal violence and chaos. But if the successful two-round presidential polls are an important first step, severe challenges lie ahead. Indeed the real test for the small and vulnerable southeast Asian nation may lie on 30 June 2007 when the nation elects its prime minister and parliament – the source of real power under the constitution.

The peaceful election and the acceptance of the results by East Timor's major party, the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin), suggest that some optimism confidence for the country's democratic future might be justified. But disturbing events and trends emerged during the campaign which have the potential to severely undermine the country's stability and even its very existence as a viable nation-state.

Jose Ramos Horta's election, contrary to many people's expectations, was not a foregone conclusion. The Nobel peace laureate and former East Timorese foreign minister and prime minister was actually defeated in the first round by the relatively obscure Fretilin candidate, Francisco "Lu'Olo" Guterreso, although there were disputes about the veracity of that result. In the end it took the support of four of the five defeated candidates for Ramos Horta to emerge victorious. The support of the Democratic Party (PD) was crucial to the final result, and Ramos Horta had to make various concessions to ensure this, including an alleged deal to halt operations for the capture of renegade army major, Alfredo Reinado.

The fact that Ramos Horta – a man with heroic status and one of the nation's most influential figures – was on his own unable to defeat Lu'Olo is indicative of the deep divisions in Timorese society and the loss of trust by the people in its once near-mythical leaders. In contrast, Xanana Gusmao in 2002 was able to obliterate his opponents in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, securing 85 per cent of the vote –  and this despite Fretilin's opposition. The difference is a measure of the people's disenchantment.

But Ramos Horta is not the only figure to emerge scarred from the recent crisis. Xanana Gusmao himself – the once revered guerrilla commander and father of the nation, looked upon as the pillar of national unity and impartiality – has also suffered a significant demystification. Gusmao's, and to a lesser extent Horta's support for the rebel soldiers (most from the western part of East Timor) has led many to question the impartiality of the president. The military crisis – part of an explosion of internecine violence and destruction in March-June 2006 – both divided the nation between a pro-Gusmao/Horta faction and the rest, and created an artificial but bloody schism between the country's east and west.

Gusmao's perceived bias towards the western rebel soldiers greatly undermined his position and prestige, and that of his long-term ally Ramos Horta. This political and ethno-regional divide contributed to the further fragmentation of the vote in the first round. The regional issue also severely undermines the national character of Fretilin, the country's major party, with many in the west perceiving it to be dominated by easterners and no longer viewing it as a truly national party. Fretilin also became increasingly associated with the unpopular Mari Alkatiri, who is accused in some quarters of having secured the party leadership in a dubious election.
The only unifying factor behind the various parties that supported Ramos Horta in the second round seems to be a strong distaste of Alkatiri and strong opposition to Fretilin. But these factors by themselves are not enough on which to build a political foundation, and Ramos Horta will need more to assume the role of a president for all Timorese.

The parliamentary elections

Xanana Gusmao's Conselho Nacional de Reconstrução do Timor (National Congress of Reconstruction of Timor / CNRT), an alliance of the major opposition parties, is most likely to emerge victorious in the legislative election on 30 June. The same elements that created challenges for Ramos Horta and in the end ultimately secured his victory are likely to affect the CNRT. Gusmao can count on the support of all of the main East Timorese opposition parties that have gathered under the CNRT umbrella, the sympathy of the Catholic church, and the support of Ramos Horta. Gusmao's main opponent will be a Fretilin that is still powerful, if increasingly ridden with factionalism.

The anti-Alkatiri forces that have rallied behind Horta may be enough to guarantee Gusmao a similarly handsome victory. However, this would by no means be the end of Fretilin. Gusmao's loss of much of his prestige among the people, along with the regional issue, may yet prove a problem for him. Fretilin has traditionally had a strong following in the eastern side of the island where most of the fighting for independence took place. After the convulsions of 2006, many in the east felt that President Gusmao was sympathetic to the mainly western rebel soldiers. This perception may have a negative effect on Gusmao's election, by leading certain sections of easterners to vote for Fretilin out of retaliation for Gusmao's perceived bias.

Another factor that may work against Gusmao and aid Fretilin will be the political character of some CNRT members. Gusmao's opponents accuse him of aligning himself with people who once advocated autonomy for a part of the nation in a way that would amount to its disintegration, and point to his association with unsavoury characters such as Alfredo Reinado as a diminution of his legitimacy. But the main problem for Gusmao is that he has lost his status as an impartial figure above power politics; by forming his party and openly taking sides he has been brought down from his pedestal.

It should be remembered that Fretilin remains a formidable political force: a party with 32 years of history, acclaimed for its role in the independence struggle against Indonesia, and the only coherently organised party in the country. Fretilin's apparatus runs through settlements of every size, with political cadres present even in the smallest village (the only body which comes close to possessing its capacity is the Catholic church). In addition, the long years of struggle and hardship endured by many of its cadres and supporters have reinforced their tenacious loyalty to the party. By contrast, the CNRT is composed of new parties some of whose leaders are tainted by past links to Indonesia.

A democratic hope

The fact that the presidential election was conducted in a largely peaceful manner – notwithstanding the violent deaths of four people before and after the campaign – offers some grounds for optimism. But serious concerns exist in three areas: the economy, security and politics.

First, both men will be leading a divided and impoverished nation of whose working-age population an estimated 80 per cent are unemployed. Second, the country has far from recovered from the explosion of internecine violence and destruction in 2006; Ramos Horta admitted during a visit to Jakarta on 5 June 2007 that the security situation in Dili remains “volatile”, though he attributed the problem more to youth gangs than political factors.

Third, Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao face the consequences of their having made various deals and concessions in order to secure the support of other parties and groups. This array of diverse forces seems to have only one thing in common: distaste for Fretilin and Mari Alkatiri. How the president and prime minister will manage such a situation, and whether the price they will need to pay in exchange for support, remains to be seen. The challenge too of dealing with individuals like Alfredo Reinado, who have a proclivity for violence but no real political agenda, will be a steep one.

Time is running out for the country called Timor-Leste in Portuguese and Timor Lorosa'e in the most widely-spoken indigenous language, Tetum. Gusmao and Horta may remain the nation's most respected politicians; but some of their prestige has been severely tended by the difficulties of the post-independence years and especially by the crisis of the last 15 months. Many argue that they are the only figures with the international standing and domestic authority to establish stability and heal the nation's wounds. But time is running out; Gusmao is 60 and Horta is 58. In any event, both leaders must dedicate all their energies to a national, political project that combines short-term alleviation with medium-term planning and long-term vision. If they fail, one must fear for the future of East Timor.
They have, however, one ace in their hand. Despite all the suffering, the tragedies and the disillusion, the fact that the Timorese people turned out to vote in overwhelming numbers shows that they keep faith in democracy. In this too lies hope for East Timor.π

Loro Horta served as an advisor to East Timor's defence department. He is the son of East Timor's new president, José Ramos Horta.
© Open Democracy