Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta has been dumped as President of Timor-Leste, with the battle for the post now likely to be fought in an April 21 run-off between Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres of the left-leaning Fretilin party, and Taur Matan Ruak, the former chief of the nation’s armed forces.
Preliminary results from Saturday’s ballot show a tight contest between Lu Olo and Ruak, who had polled well after winning the support of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and his National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor party (CNRT).
At last count, Guterres was ahead with about 28 percent of the counted vote. Ruak was behind with 25 percent of the vote and Ramos-Horta, seeking a second consecutive five year term, third and out of contention with just 18 percent.
The CNRT had shifted its support to Ruak just prior to the poll after Ramos-Horta alleged corruption and nepotism within the party’s ranks, resulting in a fallout with Gusmao, a friend and colleague from the days of East Timor’s fight for independence from Indonesia.
If no candidate wins more than the mandatory 50 percent of the ballot a run-off vote is held within a month. With 12 candidates competing in the poll, this was always anticipated.
Greg Barton of Monash University in Melbourne says Ramos-Horte, 62, had polled well, but given the post of presidency is largely symbolic it shouldn’t be surprising that voters had decided to give someone else a turn.
He also said a younger generation of voters with little personal affiliation for Timor-Leste’s fight against Indonesian occupation, which saw independence won in 2002, had made their presence felt.
“Most people voting this weekend are too young to have known Horta during his heyday as dissident advocate on the international stage,” he says.
However, internal politics also played its part, and any irritation Ramos-Horta felt towards CNRT after he lost their support should be understandable, given his support for the party in 2007.
Executive power in the country is vested in the government formed by the prime minister when one party wins an outright majority of parliamentary seats. If not, the president can decide which party has the right to form a coalition.
This constitutional ruling allowed Ramos-Horta to block Fretilin from forming a government at the last election, providing Gusmao and his CTRN with an opportunity to form a coalition government.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the vote Ramos-Horta said: “If I'm not elected, I have so many things to do – I have to struggle to choose what to do.”
With legislature elections due in mid-June ahead of a probable pull-out of United Nations and Australian troops, John Boyd, Group CEO of the regional security firm Independent Protective Services, says Ramos-Horta would be missed.
“Most important the Timor-Leste government needs to overcome their corruption issues and work towards a bright future for the people. There have been issues with transnational crimes going through there due to close proximity to Australia,” the former Australian servicemen and veteran of East Timor’s conflict said.
“The new government will need to have a realistic agenda to deal with various issues pulling them back from progress. The country is rich in various resources, commodities, and tourism would have to be part of the long term strategy,” he says.
Politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats in Washington and Canberra will be hoping for a Ruak win in the run-off. Ruak has indicated he supports closer political and military ties with the West, which is hoping he will help keep China’s expanding influence in the region in check.
Former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, ousted in 2006 amid deadly unrest, had developed closer ties with Beijing, unnerving Western powers.
More than 1,000 U.N. and 400 Australian troops were dispatched to bolster existing forces after violence flared at elections a year later and in 2008, when assassination attempts were made on Ramos-Horta and Gusmao during a failed coup by rebel soldiers.
Observers had feared factional brawling and in-fighting would again plague this election. But as the final ballots were cast no incidents had been reported. This augured well for plans to pull foreign troops out of the country ahead of its 10th anniversary of independence.
A series of bilateral police agreements between East Timor and Australia, Indonesia and Portugal are expected to take their place.