Return of the veteran in East Timor

East Timor is one of those places that I probably don’t pay as much attention to here as I’d like, given how close it is and how its history is entwined with Australia’s. But last week’s presidential election, despite its one-sided result, is well worth another look.

You could start with this post from 2018 in which I explained the background to that year’s parliamentary election. President Francisco Guterres had pushed the limits of his constitutional powers to preserve the government of his ally, then prime minister Mari Alkatiri, and when that failed had called a fresh election, which was duly won by the opposition Alliance for Change and Progress, led by Xanana Gusmão.

Gusmão chose not to take the prime ministership himself (he had previously held it from 2007 to 2012), so it went to his colleague Taur Matan Ruak. With Guterres, who had been elected in 2017, still in place, the country returned to the hostility between president and prime minister that had also been present in 2002-06, when Gusmão was president and Alkatiri was prime minister. Ruak’s government is still there, but in a complicated set of moves in 2020 he broke with Gusmão and is now largely reliant on Guterres’s party, Fretilin.

A constant of East Timorese politics is the way a small number of leading figures keep reappearing in different positions (Ruak is also a former president). So it was no particular surprise when Guterres’s opponents, looking for a challenger this year to his re-election, settled on veteran Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, previously prime minister in 2006-07 and president from 2007 to 2012.

Ramos-Horta, who is 72, and Gusmão (75) are the grand old men of the Timorese liberation struggle. Their relationship in the past has not always been amicable, but they are now again working on the same side, in opposition to Ruak and Fretilin.

In the first round of the presidential election, held on 19 March, Ramos-Horta came close to winning outright with 46.6%, more than double Guterres’s 22.1%. None of the other 14 candidates reached double figures. It wasn’t quite as impressive in last week’s runoff, but Ramos-Horta still won very comfortably with 62.1%, a margin of about 155,000 votes. He will take office on 20 May.

There is both a political and a constitutional moral here. The political moral is that Gusmão retains the electoral support that he has repeatedly demonstrated over the years: whenever the electorate has a clear choice, his side is the one that prevails. When he loses out, as in 2020, it is due to political manoeuvres of one sort or another rather than the popular vote.

The constitutional moral is more complex. Parliamentary government depends upon the head of state (in this case the elected president) being willing to take a back seat and not impose their own political preferences on events. Guterres, regardless of the rights or wrongs of particular actions, has clearly not been prepared to do that: he has acted as a partisan rather than a neutral arbiter.

But paradoxically, in order to vindicate parliamentary government, Fretilin’s opponents have now elected a strong president with his own political agenda. There is little doubt that in the next parliamentary election – due in the middle of next year, but which he may try to bring on earlier – Ramos-Horta’s influence will be used in support of Gusmão’s party and against Fretilin.

The problem is that bridling or removing a rogue president requires a political campaign, so it’s hard for any replacement to avoid being a partisan. Perhaps Ramos-Horta, having seen so much of his country’s trauma, will have the wisdom to pull back from the fray when necessary. Or perhaps further political development will have to wait until Timor’s founding generation have left the scene.

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