Subject: Business Asia: Now for round two

Politics: Now for round two

04/27/2007 05:20:55 PM EDT Business Asia

Timor-Leste's presidency is supposed to be a largely ceremonial post, but the keenness of the election contest­now going to a run-off ballot­underscores the importance the fledgling country’s political players nonetheless attach to it

Almost exactly five years since gaining independence, Timor-Leste is in the process of voting into office its second president. Results of the election’s first round, which took place on April 9th, already show that the contest is proving much closer than last time, when a hero of the independence movement, Jose Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmão, won by a landslide. A run-off ballot is now expected on May 8th. Jose Ramos Horta, an independent and the current prime minister, appears the most likely victor in this contest, despite only coming in second place in the first round.

The national election commission announced official results of the first round of voting on April 18th. Given the large number of candidates­eight­it was unsurprising that none secured the necessary 50% of the vote needed to win the election outright in the first round. A second round of voting will pit Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, currently president of the national parliament and a member of the ruling Frente Revolucinaria do Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin), the largest political party in the country, against Dr Horta. (Mr Gusmão is not running for re-election as president.) Mr Guterres won 27.9% of the vote. Dr Horta secured 21.8% of the vote. Of the other candidates, Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo of the opposition Democrat Party secured 19.2% of the votes. The first round of voting was marred by allegations of intimidation and irregularities.

Although the presidential role is largely ceremonial, the fervour surrounding the election, and the keen interest shown by the country’s leading political parties in securing the presidency, suggests that it is nonetheless a coveted position. Although Dr Horta won fewer votes than Mr Guterres, he is expected to benefit from anti-Fretilin sentiment in the run-off ballot and to win a larger share of the votes. Many of those who voted for other candidates in the first round are expected to transfer their vote to Dr Horta.

The fact that Mr Guterres failed to secure an outright majority in the first round is a disappointing outcome for Fretilin, which currently holds a commanding majority in parliament. The party’s standing is based largely on its history as the party of the resistance movement against Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of the country. However, since independence it has faced growing criticism for its management of the country. Some feel the government has been over-cautious in its handling of oil and gas revenues, which are saved in a state fund aimed (admirably, in theory) at providing for the country’s future financial security. However, critics argue that the government should be spending more on reconstruction, infrastructure, health, education and poverty relief. Public confidence in the Fretilin-led government has also suffered as a result of the violence that engulfed the capital, Dili, in mid-2006. Unemployment also remains extremely high.

If Dr Horta is elected on May 8th, his immediate challenge will be to secure the support of some of the unsuccessful presidential candidates. This should prove to be relatively simple, as many people still regard him highly for the role he played in the pro-independence movement.

More elections on the way

If the presidential election has added to political tensions in an already tense country, more trouble could be on the way. The presidential election is in some ways just the warm-up act for the more important parliamentary election, which is due in June. All eyes at this election will be on the outgoing president, the charismatic Mr Gusmão, who stands to become prime minister if his new party, Congress for the National Reconstruction of Timor-Leste, wins the election. This marks something of an about-turn for Mr Gusmão, who had long maintained that he wanted to take a break from politics.

The election is likely further to expose long-running rivalries between Mr Gusmão and members of Fretilin. Like Dr Horta, Mr Gusmão was also a founding member of Fretilin, but he, too, left the party during the 1980s owing to ideological differences and political disputes. He has openly criticised Fretilin in recent years, accusing it of corruption and ineptitude, and blaming the party for the violent clashes that occurred prior to the first round of voting in the presidential election. Given the largely ceremonial nature of the presidency, the premiership would provide Mr Gusmão with a better opportunity to influence the country’s development.

Mr Gusmão’s popularity is likely to make him a strong contender to become prime minister. Even if his party does not win, Fretilin is likely to lose seats in the legislature, partly owing to its perceived inability to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. If the Fretilin candidate’s share of the vote in the first round of the presidential election is any indication, these losses could be considerable. According to an article in The Canberra Times, if Fretilin wins a similar share of the vote in June, its share of seats in the legislature could be halved, giving it only about 30% of the seats.

SOURCE: Business Asia

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