By David Hutt
Preliminary results from Timor-Leste’s general election on Saturday indicate that an opposition coalition has clinched victory, winning enough seats to form a majority government and end the country’s political stalemate.
The Change for Progress Alliance (AMP), fronted by former independence leaders Xanana Gusmao and Taur Matan Ruak, won an estimated 49% of the popular vote with more than 99% of votes counted, giving it 34 of parliament’s 65 seats, according to the state election administration.
Independent observers don’t think the final official tally will be significantly different when it is announced on May 27. Saturday’s election in Timor Leste, also known as East Timor, was called less than 12 months after the inconclusive result of last year’s parliamentary poll.
Fretilin, the party of the small nation’s independence movement against Indonesian colonial rule, won the most seats in parliament last year but it was only able to form a minority government, even with the additional seven seats of the Democrat Party (PD) which allied with it.
Not long after parliament reconvened last year, three opposition parties which held a majority of seats banded together to form the Parliamentary Majority Alliance, the precursor to the AMP. After the alliance twice rejected Fretilin’s political program, President Francisco Guterres called for fresh polls.
Fretilin reportedly won 34% of the popular vote at Saturday’s polls, giving it 23 seats in parliament – the same number it won last year. The PD is thought to have won just five seats this time around. Thirty-three seats are needed to form a majority government.
Neither Gusmao nor Fretilin’s Mari Alkatiri, the outgoing prime minister, had commented on the preliminary election results when Asia Times went to press.
After a year of a weak and unstable government, the AMP coalition’s electoral mandate to form a majority government is crucial for Timor-Leste, the poorest nation in Southeast Asia.
Political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government had frozen and destabilized what was already a weak economy. If the AMP government can pass quickly its budget in parliament, its first task, the economy should bounce back, analysts predict.
The AMP is composed of three parties, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and the youth-aligned Khunto party. It remains unclear if the PD or FDD will ally with the AMP.
This could be necessary to form an even larger and more stable majority in parliament. Post-elections alliance are typical in Timor-Leste because of its proportional voting system, which rarely results in large single party majorities.
Prior to last year’s general election, Fretilin and the CNRT had shared power in an informal “unity government.” In 2015, the two parties’ leaders, Gusmao of the CNRT and Fretilin’s Alkatiri, agreed to step aside for a younger generation of politicians. Gusmao resigned as prime minister that year allowing Rui Maria de Araújo, of Fretilin, to take the top position.
But historic personal tensions between Gusmao and Alkatiri, and more broadly between the CNRT and Fretilin dating back to Timor-Leste’s 24-year independence struggle against Indonesia, resurfaced after last year’s general election.
There was an initial expectation that the CNRT would again form an informal alliance with Fretilin. When this wasn’t forthcoming, recently elected President Guterres, also of Fretilin, asked Alkatiri to form a minority government – a move the Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposed. When its political program was twice voted down, President Guterres was constitutionally forced to call new polls.
Campaigns ahead of Saturday’s election were more fractious than a year ago. However, many electoral observers believe the election was conducted freely and fairly, another victory for Timor-Leste’s budding democracy.
On the campaign trial, politicians reverted to personal insults in speeches and mudslinging on social media, while the AMP is alleged to have leaked business contracts of firms owned by Fretilin politicians and their families in an attempt to portray the party as corrupt.
There were also reports of violence. AMP campaigners were reportedly pelted with rocks in the east of the country, a historically restive area. On May 5, CNRT and Fretilin supporters clashed, leaving 13 people injured and several vehicles damaged.
These isolated events pale in comparison to the widespread violence seen in 2006, which included assassination attempts on political leaders. Timor-Leste’s last three elections have now taken place without United Nations peacekeepers.
Timor-Leste regained its independence in 2002, after a 24-year occupation by neighboring Indonesia. It was previously colonized by Portugal for centuries.
Ahead of the May 12 ballot, the AMP alliance had cast dispersions on certain electoral institutions, claiming that the National Electoral Commission (CNE) in particular was tilting the playing field towards Fretilin.
Even as the elections were underway, Gusmao reportedly complained about how electoral authorities were conducting the poll and claimed that the result might have been compromised, according to electoral watchdogs.
Most political analysts, however, have praised the CNE, which they say acted professionally and transparently, even more remarkable given its shortage of funds after two elections last year. A presidential election was also held in 2017.
In a statement, the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission, an independent, volunteer election observer group, expressed concern over the “injudicious and inappropriate language of some political representatives prior to and during the election campaign, relating to the conduct of the election.”
Derek Luyten, regional director for Asia at the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy advocacy group, said that despite some concerns that a tens environment before the elections would affect the ballot, “both Timorese voters and politicians responded with maturity and respect for the process in determining their next government.”
“This is very much a positive step for democracy in Timor-Leste,” Luyten added.
Moreover, unconfirmed reports contend that voter turnout was the highest in years, not an easy feat given the difficulty voters face in actually travelling to polling stations in rural areas.
How the AMP goes about forming a government is the next step to an orderly democratic trasition. President Guterres is expected to ask the AMP to do so once the results are finalized.
It is likely that Gusmao will become prime minister for the second time unless he decides to hand power to another politician. Aside from passing an annual budget, the new government will also have to quickly tackle negotiations with Australia over oil and gas rights.
Gusmao has been the main representative in negotiations with Australia over maritime borders of the Timor Sea, which proportions oil ownership and revenue. In February, the two nations reached an agreement over how to distribute revenue of the Greater Sunrise gas fields, which could yield anywhere between US$30 billion and US$45 billion, with the majority going to Timor-Leste.
Disputes remain over where the oil should be processed, however. Timorese negotiators stubbornly claim it should be conducted at an on-shore facility on the country’s remote southern coast, part of its so-called Tasi Mane petroleum corridor project.
However, Australia and the partners of the Greater Sunrise Joint Venture – composed of Woodside Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and Osaka Gas – argue this would be too expensive and complicated. Australia has offered Timor-Leste a higher percentage of profits if it agrees to offshore processing.
Negotiations are set to continue once Timor-Leste forms a government. An early agreement would be in the Southeast Asian nation’s interest, since the vast majority of its state funds come from oil revenue saved in its sovereign wealth fund. But this could be depleted by 2026, analysts think.
Offshore processing, an easier solution, would mean more money, more quickly for Timor-Leste. Moreover, it is likely that Gusmao will be less stubborn at the negotiating table now that the elections are over, given how combustive the issue is domestically.
Another source of debate will be how an AMP government formulates its political policy. While none of the political parties advocate for less government spending, despite economic analysts advising it’s a more prudent path, they are divided on how best to allocate it.
The CNRT has long favored high-cost mega-projects. But its alliance partners, especially the PLP, contend that this is a waste of money. Instead, the PLP and Khunto argue more money should be spent on education, health care and infrastructure projects that develop the country’s nascent economy.
These two parties also argue that more money needs to go to the countryside and not to Dili, the capital, which has boomed in population after years of considerable investment.
It will be several days until a formal announcement is made on the election results and possibly weeks until a new government is sworn in. It is yet to be seen who in the AMP coalition will take the largest ministries, especially the all-important Ministry of Finance.
What is clear, however, is that this weekend’s elections demonstrated again the strength of Timor-Leste’s young democracy. Despite reports of violence and mudslinging, voters went to the ballots free and fairly.
Just as important, it is likely that there will be a strong adversarial parliamentary opposition, something missing in Timor-Leste for years.
When Fretilin and the CNRT ruled under their “unity government”, there were complaints that this left parliament without an oppositional voice, given the two parties held almost all of the law-making body’s seats at the time.
From 2016 onwards, then-President Ruak was often forced to go beyond his constitutional duties inn trying to hold the “unity” government to some scrutiny.
After his presidency, he founded the PLP specifically to be an opposition voice in parliament. Now, with Fretilin set to become a party in opposition, there will be an even stronger voice to hold the prospective AMP government to account.