April 8, 2007
THOSE who view East Timor's politics as largely benign describe the mood before tomorrow's presidential election as "dynamic". Those who view the situation more ominously describe the environment as "fluid". Either way, it is likely that the outcome expected just a few days ago has been thrown into doubt.
Of the eight candidates for East Timor's presidency, only three are believed to have any real chance of winning — Fretilin's Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, Democratic Party leader Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo and the current prime minister, Jose Ramos-Horta.
A week ago it seemed the contest would be between Guterres and Ramos-Horta. Last week, de Araujo became a favourite. All would distinctively shape the political landscape.
A former guerilla fighter, parliamentary speaker Guterres is regarded as a palatable option for Fretilin's hardliners. But support for Fretilin has fallen since the civil conflict of a year ago, for which the Fretilin government has been held largely responsible.
Complicating Fretilin's position, last year's stymied push against Fretilin leader and former prime minister Mari Alkatiri by the party's "Mudansa" (reform) faction has led to an open split. Up to half of the party, largely identified as its youth wing, has now backed President Xanana Gusmao's new Council for East Timor National Reconstruction (CNRT) party, which will contest the elections, with Gusmao hoping to become prime minister.
This split and likely additional protest vote has seriously weakened Guterres' chances of winning the presidency. Should he be successful, however, it will be an endorsement of Fretilin's conservative leadership and back to the problems that led to the violence last year.
Former foreign minister and perceived "clean-skin", Ramos-Horta is standing as an "independent", although Gusmao and CNRT are backing him for the presidency. This should have put him in a prime political position.
However, since assuming the prime ministership last year, Ramos-Horta has been constrained by a lack of parliamentary and organisational support and has been seen as somewhat ineffective.
Further, Ramos-Horta's comments at the recent trial of now-convicted former interior minister Rogerio Lobato, that Lobato's arming of civilians was intended to establish security, has backfired badly.
Although sentenced to seven years for manslaughter, Lobato has not yet gone to jail, living at home under "house arrest". This has angered many, especially those who already had little faith in the justice system.
Ramos-Horta is also seen as responsible for authorising the attack by Australian troops last month on renegade prison escapee Afredo Reinado and his supporters in the town of Same. While Reinado faces charges of murder and escaping from prison, many East Timorese see his actions within the context of last year's troubles and support him accordingly.
The Australian troops hunting for Reinado could no doubt find him if they choose but are holding back for fear that another attack could further destabilise the delicate political environment. Opposition to Fretilin tended to sympathise with Reinado. Ramos-Horta has consequently lost much of that anti-Fretilin vote.
With Guterres and Ramos-Horta both mired in political troubles, the way is increasingly open for de Araujo to come from behind and take the lead. De Araujo was a key leader of the underground student movement during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and was a political prisoner in Jakarta's Cipinang prison with Gusmao.
De Araujo's political standing is largely built on this foundation, his reformist policies and his coalition with other non-Fretilin parties. De Araujo is also strongly identified with the "young generation" that grew up under Indonesian occupation, as opposed to the "1975 generation" of politicians who spent the occupation overseas or, in a few cases, in the mountains.
Assuming Ramos-Horta cannot recover — and his political rallies have been small — de Araujo will attract the young and anti-Fretilin vote, probably in a second contest between the two leading candidates from tomorrow's election. With Fretilin's "Mudansa" faction behind Gusmao's CNRT, a coalition of non-Fretilin parties is likely to form a majority in the elections, with Gusmao their likely prime minister.
The problem with this scenario is that Gusmao and de Araujo are not only separated by a political generation but they have differing policies. A working relationship between these two built on mutual respect could secure East Timor's future. Their failure to work together, however, could split the parliament and spell further political troubles for this still struggling nation.
Fretilin is likely to view losing with considerable chagrin. If it restricts its loss to active opposition, it will assist this fledgling democracy. But Fretilin's old guard has not yet shown it is prepared to play a peaceful political game. The elections are thus a possible step forward for East Timor, but not a guaranteed one.
Associate professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the master's program in international and community development, Deakin University. He is co-editor, with Michael Leach, of East Timor: Beyond Independence, soon to be released by Monash University Press.