14 March 2012

Race to the top in East Timor

Asia Times Southeast Asia Mar 14, 2012 Race to the top in East Timor By Anna Powles DILI - Timorese voters will go to the polls twice this year to elect the nation's president and parliament for the third time since achieving independence in 2001. The elections, scheduled respectively for March and June, promise to be the most significant to date for Timor Leste, also known as East Timor.

The 2002 elections followed the flush of independence from Indonesian rule, while the 2007 polls were overshadowed by the previous year's political and civil unrest that led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. This year's elections will define the country's direction over the next five years during which the United Nations Integrated Mission to Timor Leste and the Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) will both withdraw and national leaders will face critical development issues.

Until this year, the presidential election was viewed mainly as a precursor to the more important parliamentary vote. However, the appeal of the presidential role is unprecedented among political groups and has attracted a wide pool of candidates. Regarded as a largely ceremonial position, the office has limited executive authority but does serve a critical oversight function to the National Parliament and has the power of final approval over the Prime Minister's appointment.

The incumbent president and presidential nominee, Jose Ramos Horta, has successfully raised the profile of the office and challenged its constitutionally limited reach. To an extent, Ramos Horta has politicized the office, increasing both the symbolic and material power of the president during his five-year tenure. This may, however, ultimately contribute to his downfall at the ballot box at the upcoming poll.

This year's presidential race is among 12 candidates, more than double the number that contested the 2007 poll. Ramos Horta, former defense force chief Jose Maria Vasconcelos (known by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak, or "Two Sharp Eyes"), and Fretilin party president Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres are the three front runners. Lu Olo won the first round of the 2007 presidential election without a clear majority and Ramos Horta secured the second round with 69% of the vote.

Ramos Horta's low-key campaign retains popular support but was dealt a blow following Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's withdrawal of his CNRT party's endorsement. Ramos Horta is believed to have picked up votes from supporters of the recently deceased candidate Xavier do Amaral, leader of the Social Democratic Association of Timor and one of the nation's founding leaders.

Gusmao and CNRT, the ruling party within the governing coalition, has thrown considerable support behind Taur Matan Ruak and formed a potential super bloc between two leading figures of the resistance struggle against Indonesian rule.

While the Ruak-Gusmao political ticket represents one of the most powerful alliances in post-independence politics, the tense personal history between the two former guerrilla leaders re-emerged during the 2006 crisis and suggests that their political marriage is one of convenience.

The presidential race also has two dark horses. One is the Democratic Party (PD) contender and current president of the National Parliament, Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, who placed third in the first round of the 2007 presidential elections and endorsed Ramos Horta in the second round run-off, contributing to the latter's successful election.

Lasama has widespread support among the country's youth but internal tensions within PD have weakened his campaign. Lasama's influence will likely prove critical if the presidential election extends to a second round.

The other contender is Rogerio Lobato, the former minister for the interior convicted for the illegal distribution of weapons during the 2006 crisis. Lobato served less than a year of a seven-year prison sentence, flew out of the country courtesy of the Kuwaiti government, which provided a Lear Jet, spent the subsequent years in Malaysia and Portugal, and returned to Timor Leste in 2010. As the former commander of the armed forces in 1975, Lobato draws his support from the veterans in the east of the country.

A lesser known presidential candidate is the current Vice Prime Minister and Frente Mudanca candidate Jose Luis "Lu Gu" Guterres, who is unlikely to poll highly but whose breakaway faction of Fretilin may prove to be a potential king-maker during the parliamentary elections.

Guerilla democracy

The presidential campaign has been a war of ideologies and pedigrees. Highly political and increasingly politicized resistance pedigrees have always played a role in national politics and are proving central to the current presidential race. For instance, Taur Matan Ruak accused Lu Olo, a leading member of the clandestine movement and Taur Matan Ruak's subordinate during the struggle, of challenging resistance power structures by running against him in the presidential race.

The clash between traditional and modern power structures reflects the larger struggle to define Timor Leste as a nation and a people. Former guerrilla leader and chief of the defense force Taur Matan Ruak has close ties with traditional power structures, forged during the resistance struggle and reinforced by his resistance pedigree. Ramos Horta, a diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political moderate, represents the modern or post-independence power structures, which receive greater international support.

As a consequence of Taur Matan Ruak's candidacy and Gusmao's support, the presidential election has also placed the Timorese military's history and future at the forefront of the campaign. Despite running as a civilian, Taur Matan Ruak's campaign has utilized images of his military lineage to powerful effect. The former military leader has made it clear that the defense force will play a significant role in the development of the nation, including mandatory military service for Timorese males and females.

Taur Matan Ruak's strength lies in the veteran vote which, although by no means unified, is a dynamic of resistance pedigree politics and holds greater sway in 2012 than it has in past elections. Taur Matan Ruak has consolidated an increasingly powerful faction comprised of veterans, petitioners and renegades around a growing sense of entitlement that is likely to extend to the ballot box. Allegations of voter intimidation, confirmed by the National Election Commission, have involved uniformed and armed members of the national defense force.

Presidential candidates are less known for their policies than their promises and campaign speeches tend towards grand national narratives with considerable rhetoric focused on national reconciliation, an end to corruption, justice and spending or not spending the nation's petroleum revenues.

A recent Asia Foundation report estimated that Timor Leste now collects US$275 million in oil revenue per month and this year's state budget is scheduled to draw some $1.76 billion from a government managed petroleum fund.

What all candidates appear to agree upon is the withdrawal of the UN and ISF by the end of the year. Timor Leste is arguably experiencing a renaissance of self-determination, and the small nation's international friends and neighbors would be wise to consider how to best engage with a stronger and more willful polity.

If none of the candidates wins a clear majority on March 17, a second round of voting will take place in mid-April. The period between the two rounds, during which the distribution of votes and formation of alliances would take place, would likely be particularly contentious and potentially violent. Indeed, the dynamics for violence - and its components - are never far from the surface in Timor Leste's developing democracy.

Dr Anna Powles was an adviser to the Timorese Government following the 2006 crisis and is currently based in Timor Leste consulting for a number of international organizations and donors. She is also conducting research for a book on the 2006 crisis and the international stabilization operation.

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