Monday, October 10, 2011

Way open for power shift in Timor Leste

The presidential and legislative elections in East Timor are approaching. However a big question remains as to whether the President of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste and the Prime Minister are ready to hand over their power to the younger figures.

No answer has been found among the two big parties, CNRT and Fretilin. The National Reconstruction Congress of Timor Leste (CNRT) party held its congress in May 2011 and re-elected Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao as chairman.

A new internal structure has been formed and inaugurated, but Gusmo has not forwarded any names for his party’s presidential candidate to replace Jose Manuel Ramos-Horta, nor has he indicated who will be the prime minister if the CNRT party wins the legislative poll, other than himself.

On the other hand, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), the strongest party in Timor Leste, did the same. A unique democratic way, “a national secret and direct vote”, was introduced to all members across the country.

The ballot paper gave more than 150,000 cadres the option of rejecting candidates who were unopposed. They could chose to tick a blank box alongside the candidates’ name for top leadership positions. The national congress on Sept. 8-10, 2011, was only to adopt what they had arranged.

Former speaker of parliament, Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and former prime minister Mari bin Amude Alkatiri, the sole candidates, were reelected as chairman and secretary general of the Fretilin Party, bearing in mind that chairman Lu Olo is still under consideration by the Central Committee as Fretilin’s candidate for the presidency.

In other words, neither Xanana Gusmao nor Mari Alkatiri are considered first choices for the presidential candidacy. Instead of seeking potential cadres in their own parties, these political leaders are focused on strengthening their parties for the next parliamentary election and at the same time approaching smaller parties to build a coalition.

Furthermore, incumbent President Ramos-Horta indicated he was 90 percent certain he would not run for re-election. His desire to occupy an important international post is no longer a secret. When he was foreign affairs minister in Alkatiri’s administration, he proposed that the prime minister seek candidacy as the UN secretary-general. He also wished to be a candidate for the High Commissioner for Human Rights post in Geneva.

There has been no positive response from the government, as Timor Leste still needs him. It could be inferred that Horta, who was the prime minister in 2006-2007, may not stand for re-election. At this stage, the way is open for a power shift from a largely ceremonial and prestigious post that has a symbolic role.

The third-strongest party after Fretilin and CNRT is the Democratic Party (PD), led by Fernando de Araujo or Lasama. He has prepared himself for the presidential election and he may gain support from the younger generation, students and even from the church. No major political obstacles stand between him and his presidential bid.

It should be noted that Horta has political debts to pay to Lasama, a reminder to Horta that in 2007, the PD supported Horta in the second round of elections to beat Lu Olo. Meanwhile, Gusmao, whether he likes or not, should also give way to Lasama, as the PD has consistently backed CNRT/Gusmao after intense backstage political maneuvering so that Horta, in his capacity, could ask the CNRT to form a coalition government. With or without the forthcoming PD congress, Lasama, who is currently Speaker of the National Parliament, will head up the party.

The other candidate is the chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Taur Matan Ruak. It is obvious now that the general wants to be one of the presidential candidates. Despite lacking formal approval from Horta and Gusmao, it would not come as a surprise, according Paulo Gorjao if sooner or later Gusmao reveals his support for Matan Ruak’s presidential bid.

The favorite presidential candidate on “the list” is Jose Luis Guterres, currently deputy prime minister. In 2006, he lost to Alkatiri in the race for Fretilin’s secretary-general post and then he shifted allegiance to Xanana in the coalition government.

Despite the fact that his new political party, Frenti-Mudanca, registered on April 24, 2011, is a “Fretilin-reform” party, Alkatiri congratulated him and Fretilin has made it clear that it wants a neutral president who will create equilibrium among all political parties. Guterres’ political maneuver makes him capable of defeating any candidates thanks to his good relationship with both Gusmao and Alkatiri.

It is predicted that from the more than eight candidates, Lu Olo might be the number four choice after Luis Guterres, General Taur and Lasama. Other candidates are expected to contest with less likelihood of success. It seems that there will be no candidate who receives an outright majority. Most likely a run-off will occur. The unpredictable element is Akatiri’s claim that his party will win 60 percent and no other party can win 40 percent, while Gusmao is confident that his party will win a majority, as with only three months of existence, CNRT won in 2007, how much more after four years?

Regardless who wins, it’s not the first time Gusmao said it was time for him to be a pumpkin farmer, while Alkatiri promised he will serve only one year if Gusmao is no longer in power. No matter what the answer is to this “chicken or eggs” question, after 10 years of independence, Timor Leste remains one of the world’s poorest nations, ranking 120 out of 169 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Overall, 41 percent of East Timorese live below the national poverty line of 88 US cents a day. Unemployment is high — around 16,000 young people enter the labor market each year to chase 400 new formal sector jobs.

The IMF calls Timor Leste the “most oil-dependent economy in the world”, with petroleum income accounting for around 95 percent of all government revenue in 2009. In addition, a newly-leaked US diplomatic cable reveals that “petroleum revenue has boosted nominal statistics like gross national income, making Timor Leste look more prosperous on paper, but that stimulus demand effects have yet to filter into the real domestic economy”.

On security matters, the AFP reports that Timor Leste’s police are still incapable of dealing with minor unrest, and accuses them of links to shadowy martial arts gangs responsible for frequent violent outbreaks such as in the small town of Zumalai. Resentment over slow development amid apparent graft could be exacerbated by a looming crisis over land rights and ownership. All of these problems remain unsettled during the administration of Gusmao-Alkatiri and Horta-Gusmao and of course will be the homework for the new leaders if the way opens for peaceful power shift.

By Kristio Wahyono, Yogyakarta Indonesian representative in Timor Leste in 2000-2003

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