A Step Forward in East Timor Polls

Recent Features


A Step Forward in East Timor Polls

Luke Hunt on recent elections that show further signs of hope in East Timor.

Former resistance leader and head of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the charismatic Xanana Gusmao, will again lead East Timor with officials confirming he won more than 36 percent of the vote at last weekend’s general elections.

However the result falls short of an absolute majority in Parliament, meaning a coalition government is all but assured and leading to calls for a rainbow government of national unity made up of all political parties which contested the poll.

Such a coalition would allow Gusmao and former president Jose Ramos-Horta to bury their differences by entering what Ramos-Horta describes as a “big tent” arrangement.

The CNRT is expected to win 30 seats to Fretilin's 25 in the 65-seat Parliament. The Democratic Party should pick-up eight while Frenti-Mudanca – formed out of a Fretilin factional break-away — has won two and Khunto could also pick-up two seats.

Gusmao says a new administration will be formed by August 8.

However, observers are wary about whether the parties can function as a unit if a government of national unity is formed. The tiny country has a U.S. $10.5 billion petroleum fund and the CNRT has indicated a willingness to borrow against that to help raise East Timor out of dire poverty and lower the youth unemployment rate.

This could prove the stumbling block to Fretilin joining the coalition. It’s opposed to increased borrowings, nevertheless horse trading is expected and its secretary-general, the former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, is also expected to face internal party pressure to step down.

Alkatiri is widely unpopular in a party that held an extraordinary standing within the East Timorese consciousness for its efforts in fighting Indonesian authority after Jakarta ordered its troops to invade the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

Fretilin also lost out at presidential elections in March.

East Timor won its independence, becoming a sovereign state in 2002 after a long and bloody civil war and has been struck by occasional outbursts of violence, including the 2006 rebellion and assassination attempts on Gusmao and Ramos-Horta two years later.

Australian troops were sent to bolster a UN deployment and to restore order.

Gusmao’s victory with a coalition including Fretilin behind him should improve stability and this would aid the country’s broader ambitions, which includes membership to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional trading bloc aiming for a fully integrated economic community by 2015.

That stability would also be welcomed among UN observers who applauded the weekend poll as peaceful and plan to pull UN troops out of East Timor by the end of the year, ending an international mission which dates back to 1999 when East Timor first declared its independence.

That in itself would be a further success.