Timor-Leste has disputed the 2002 creation of a Joint Petroleum Development Area in the Timor Sea, and the adjacent boundaries, from which both Australia and Timor-Leste derive profits from oil extraction. Timor-Leste has argued in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that the treaty, which was agreed to by Timor-Leste under pressure, should be invalidated as a result of Australia spying on the Timor-Leste negotiating team.
The court was due to hand down a determination on the matter in September, but in August both parties agreed to work outside the judicial system to seek a negotiated outcome. In September, Gusmão said that he could not ‘run away’ from his leadership role while the negotiations were underway.
Gusmão had been considering stepping down as prime minister to make way for a younger generation of Timor-Leste leadership since 2013, a year after his coalition government was re-elected. There have been calls in Timor-Leste for the ‘Generation of ’75’ leaders to step aside to make way for a younger generation of political leaders. Timor-Leste’s political leadership continues to be dominated by actors who were either military resistance leaders during the Indonesian occupation or who, from 1975, helped lead the struggle from abroad.
Gusmão has recognised that the next generation of leaders is unlikely to emerge while he remains as prime minister, such has been his dominance over Timor-Leste’s political life since before the country achieved independence in 2002. But, at 67 years old and having spent 17 years as a guerrilla fighter and leader and then seven years in an Indonesian prison, Gusmão is less robust than he once was, in particular suffering chronic and sometimes debilitating back pain.
While Gusmão was concerned to ensure a positive outcome for the Timor Sea negotiations, as well as a royalties dispute with oil company ConocoPhilips, this is only part of his reason for wanting to stay on as prime minister. The real negotiations with Australia and the oil companies are largely handled by Resources Minister Alfredo Pires and his team, so Gusmão’s presence is more symbolic than actual in that regard.
Another part of Gusmão’s thinking is that it is not yet clear who would — or could — succeed him as the country’s leader. Gusmão’s very able right-hand man and Chief of Cabinet, Agio Pereira, has been widely tipped to succeed Gusmão. However, Pereira is himself a member of the Generation of ’75, having fled to Australia where he was a key contact for the resistance movement.
More importantly though is that, having lived outside the country for so long, Pereira does not have either an established geographic or language group support base and, despite his undoubted competence, does not have a high public profile beyond Dili.
There are others in Gusmão’s party (the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) who could also succeed him, and who are younger, including party secretary-general Dionísio Babo Soares. But there is also a view that, without Gusmão’s leadership, in a country in which charisma counts for more than policy, the party — and the coalition government — could break up over a disputed leadership.
On the other side of the political fence, the Generation of ’75 leaders of Timor-Leste’s second largest party, Fretilin, especially Mari Alkatiri, do not look like leaving any time soon. This is despite Alkatiri having taken his party to successive election defeats.
Although he worked closely with Fretilin following the 2012 elections, Gusmão would be deeply reluctant to see Alkatiri again take the prime ministership, if it were this time by default.
Finally, while Timor-Leste’s oil fund has now reached US$15 billion, the government has been spending at a rate that, depending on future fiscal prudence, will see it run out of money some time over the next 10 to 20 years. While Gusmão cannot hope to be around to oversee that process, he may wish to see put in place more sustainable economic policies. He may also want to more fully address some of his people’s continuing problems with widespread poverty, poor education and high unemployment.
With his undoubted love for Timor-Leste’s people and at least one eye on his legacy, no time will be, to him, a good time to finally let go. Author: Damien Kingsbury, Deakin University
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