07 July 2012

Timor-Leste's political elites will have to play the long game

Canberra Times July 6, 2012 OPINION - Timor-Leste goes to the polls again tomorrow for the all-important parliamentary elections. Under the country's semi-presidential system, executive power is overwhelmingly weighted toward the prime minister, making this the most critical of the three elections scheduled for 2012, and the one at which a new government will be formed.

Twenty-one parties are conducting their campaign and rallies, competing for seats in the 65-seat national parliament. Barring a sensational performance from one of the major parties, Timor-Leste's proportional electoral system makes a post-electoral coalition likely.

Much is riding on a peaceful election. If all goes well, both the UN police and the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force will withdraw from the country late in 2012. A successful and widely accepted result in the parliamentary elections will be the key to democratic consolidation. So far the signs are positive, with Dili's residents going about their daily business as usual, and political rallies occupying Dili's national stadium rather than the streets. The contrast with the tense pre-election period in 2007, following soon after Timor-Leste's debilitating 2006 crisis, is marked.

Since 2007 Timor-Leste has been governed by the Parliamentary Majority Alliance, a coalition of parties headed by the current prime minister, Xanana Gusmão. Fretilin, which formed the first post-independence government in 2002, currently serves as the opposition. The major election issues are clear: management of the country's $US10 billion petroleum fund, development policies, and preserving peace and stability. Though it finished second in the 2007 elections, Xanana Gusmão's CNRT has been the lead party in the governing coalition - alongside the smaller ASDT-PSD social democratic coalition and the Democratic Party (PD).

Fretilin - still the largest single party - has a lot at stake in this election, but is not without advantages, including a well-organised district structure and a committed membership base. A level of popular disaffection with limited development progress in the rural areas and rising economic inequality may also aid Fretilin's campaign.

The wild card in the election is the former president and leader of the diplomatic front, José Ramos-Horta. Capitalising on his reputation as a bridge builder, Ramos-Horta has campaigned for two smaller parties: the Democratic Party (PD), led by the president of the parliament and former clandestine resistance leader Fernando ''Lasama'' de Araujo, and the ASDT, the party founded by the country's recently deceased first president at the time of their short lived independence in 1975, Xavier do Amaral. Most recently Horta has been more openly supportive of the latter.

The outcomes are difficult to predict. It seems likely that CNRT and Fretilin will battle it out for first place, with a newly invigorated PD a genuine chance to establish itself clearly as the third party. Their preference in post-election negotiations will be crucial, though a range of smaller parties will enter the picture if any two of these parties cannot construct a working majority of 33 seats. Gusmao's CNRT has been focused on set-piece rallies with music, entertainment, and speeches from the charismatic leader, who has done few press conferences. CNRT has instead focused rallying the faithful with iconic images of their leader's key role in the resistance era, and selling the current government's national development plan.

The overwhelming focus on Gusmao himself raises some questions over the party's future when the 66-year-old leader eventually departs the national stage, though his personal profile ensures a sound performance in the meantime. The Fretilin campaign has promised guaranteed minimum 150 hours annual paid work on government projects for unemployed Timorese, and cash transfers to women for staying in education. PD has promised scholarships for students, aiming at Timor-Leste's increasingly youth-dominated electorate.

As is common in multi-party proportional systems, behind the scenes negotiations between parties will determine the final outcome. But despite the focus on secret alliance deals, votes alone will determine individual party results.

The proliferation of smaller parties in this election may prove important here. Timor-Leste's electoral system has a 3 per cent minimum threshold that will see many of the 21 parties ineligible for seats. A related benefit for larger parties is that votes for eliminated parties are then excluded for the purposes of distributing seats. This increases the number of seats that flow from larger parties' vote share.

Whatever the final outcome, Timor-Leste's often fractious political elites will have to play the long game in the wake of this election. As the UN departs for the second time, another 2006 style crisis cannot be contemplated by any parties. Barring the outside possibility of a government of national unity, 2012 will bring defeat for at least one of the main parties.

It will fall upon whoever ends up in opposition to assist in setting the tone for democratic consolidation after the UN era. There is little doubt that the new president will play a key role in emphasising these points after Saturday.

Michael Leach is associate professor of politics and public policy at the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology.
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