Election preview: East Timor

It’s been a big week for democracy in South-East Asia, with Wednesday’s stunning opposition victory in Malaysia. Today, in a smaller affair but even closer to home, voters in East Timor (also called Timor-Leste) have the opportunity to strike another blow against autocracy.

East Timor’s president, Francisco Guterres, last year staged what could be described as a “soft coup” when he prevented the opposition from taking office even though it had a parliamentary majority. Instead, he and prime minister Mari Alkatiri conducted a series of legal and procedural manoeuvres to delay a decisive vote of no confidence in parliament, playing out the clock until January, when it became legally possible for the president to dissolve parliament – an opportunity he promptly seized.

Last year’s election, held in July, had produced a near dead-heat between the two major parties. Fretilin, the party of Guterres and Alkatiri, finished one seat ahead, with 29.7% and 23 of the 65 seats; its rival, CNRT, the party of independence leader and former president Xanana Gusmão, was just over a thousand votes behind, with 29.5% and 22 seats.

Since neither was close to a majority, Fretilin was given first opportunity to form a government. It took the Democratic Party into coalition, bringing it to 30 seats. With no alternative combination presenting itself, Alkatiri was sworn in as prime minister in a minority government.

But after parliament met, it became evident that Gusmão commanded a majority, having sewn up an agreement with the other two minor parties, the People’s Liberation Party (eight seats) and KHUNTO (five). The government’s program was rejected and Alkatiri’s attempts to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement (as had been in place prior to last year’s election) were unsuccessful.

If East Timor was a fully functioning democracy, it’s clear what should have happened at this point: Alkatiri should have resigned and the CNRT-let coalition should have been invited to form government. Instead, Fretilin decided to aim for a fresh election. This is it.

East Timor has been through a couple of rough patches in the 16 years since independence. Nonetheless, by the standards of other decolonisation movements in the region – not to mention its own violent history – the country hasn’t done too badly.

Ideological differences between CNRT and Fretilin are a bit hard to discern, although Fretilin’s lean to the left is perhaps a bit more pronounced. More important is the difference, seen in a number of countries that have been through a liberation struggle, between the “internals” (those who fought on the ground under occupation, represented by CNRT) and the “externals” (those who were outside the country at the time focused on diplomatic efforts, represented by Fretilin).

Voting is d’Hondt proportional across the whole country, with a 4% threshold. Michael Leach’s preview at Inside Story is particularly worth a read.

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