Old rivalries and party splits: The presidential runoff in Timor-Leste

By Michael Leach, Professor, Politics and International Relations – Swinburne University of Technology

Timor-Leste will choose a new president next week after a two-round election that has exposed historic rivalries and political fissures that could affect the country’s political stability, writes Michael Leach.

Timor-Leste heads to the polls again on 19 April, after a first-round Presidential election that saw Jose Ramos-Horta win comfortably with 46.5 percent of the popular vote, but fall short of the majority required to avoid a runoff election of the top two candidates.

Joining Ramos-Horta in the runoff is the incumbent President, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres, who finished second on 22.1 percent. This was below the usual Fretilin vote of around 30 percent, which points to fissures in the party’s internal politics.

With the other 14 first-round candidates now eliminated, the second-round contest has a different dynamic. Eliminated candidates either publicly support one of the two remaining candidates or urge their followers to vote according to their conscience.

This is normally a critical dynamic – and it remains so in 2022, although not necessarily for the usual reasons. In past elections, support from eliminated candidates has been a stepping stone to victory. But with Ramos-Horta so close to the necessary 50 percent threshold, needing just 30,000 additional votes, the significance of endorsements lies more in what they say about the political landscape, looking ahead to the more important parliamentary elections, where government is formed.

These are currently scheduled for 2023, but if Ramos-Horta’s chief backer, Xanana Gusmão, has his way, they will be held earlier. The support of Gusmão’s CNRT for Ramos-Horta came with the explicit “recommendation” that if elected President, Ramos-Horta take the potentially controversial step of dissolving the parliament and calling early elections.

Ramos-Horta has already secured the backing of several first-round candidates for the second round, most notably the Democratic Party’s Mariano Sabino, who came fifth with 7.3 percent of the vote. Notably, however, the PD opposes the notion of dissolving parliament early. Several candidates with smaller returns have also backed Horta, including Isabel Ferreira, the wife of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak. Other eliminated candidates have left their options open, but some have explicitly noted they do not support dissolution. Outside the CNRT, dissolution appears a controversial path, with many in Timor-Leste concerned it will inflame rather than calm inter-party tensions.

Voting day, Timor-Leste election
Voters gather for the first round of ballots in the 2022 Timor-Leste presidential election - March 19, 2022. Image credit: Timor-Leste National Police, Facebook.

While Lu Olo is clearly facing an uphill battle, he has the support of the three parties that dominate the current government – his own Fretilin party, Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP, and the rising star of Timorese politics, the rural-based KHUNTO party. KHUNTO’s Berta dos Santos, the current Deputy PM, finished third in the presidential race with 8.7 percent of the national vote.

Of course, with Ramos-Horta’s vote so close to 50 percent, these declarations of support may not alter the result in the second round, and there is no guarantee PLP, KHUNTO or PD supporters will in fact follow their leaders’ recommendation. But the backing of the PLP and KHUNTO for Lu Olo points to another dynamic altogether. They have also publicly committed to continuing their political alliance in parliament to the end of the term.

Ramos-Horta declared his first-round result would be a “political earthquake”, which would shake the current parliamentary alliance and lead to the fall of the government. This signalled that Ramos-Horta was considering a less confrontational path than that of dissolving parliament, namely, a reconfigured majority alliance in the current parliament, which would support a remodelled government — no doubt based centrally on the CNRT — until the 2023 parliamentary elections are due. This would represent a less constitutionally vexed course of action, posing fewer political risks for a new president. Nonetheless, Ramos-Horta maintains dissolution is an option he will consider if elected. If so, it’s likely he would have the power to do so, with the courts unwilling to review Presidential executive discretions in the absence of a formal impeachment by parliament.

While the political pressure of a Ramos-Horta victory may yet weaken the current governing alliance, the position of Fretilin, PLP and KHUNTO in backing Lu Olo suggests they intend to hold firm until 2023 – setting the government on a potential collision course with a new president.

If KHUNTO indeed refuses to budge from the alliance, this presents potential hurdles for Xanana and the CNRT. First, it complicates the desire for early elections.  And second, it raises the prospect of alliance difficulties after the next parliamentary elections, whenever they might be, with clear signs KHUNTO could emerge as the third largest force, which brings substantial weight in a proportional system. Insiders suggest the KHUNTO presidential campaign was effectively a poll to demonstrate its rising support and bargaining power. If so, it was a success.

Reflecting on events since 2017, the CNRT has clearly decided it may need the President as an ally, and this is part of its current strategy. The days when major players underrated the President’s powers are now gone, and this is evident in the high profile Xanana has taken in the presidential campaign, when in previous years he was far less visible.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ruak, who kept a low profile in the first round, is now taking leave to campaign actively for Lu Olo. Whether Ruak’s PLP maintains its support base is an open question. In response to Ruak’s backing of Lu Olo, the Horta campaign has been bringing up Ruak’s legacy in the 2006 political-military crisis, and attacking government inaction over flood-proofing Dili, and dengue prevention. The government now promises an annual subsidy to households, much like that received by public servants at Christmas, and argues this is relevant to the Presidential campaign, as Ramos-Horta intends to dissolve parliament.

Meanwhile, the Presidential campaign has highlighted another proxy battle, this time the looming battle for the leadership of Fretilin. In the first round, Fretilin’s vote was split between its formal candidate Lu Olo, and the high profile recently retired head of the defence force, General Lere, who ran in defiance of the leadership. Lere finished fourth, with 7.6 percent, and clearly undercut Lu Olo’s performance. Lere’s challenge for the Presidency came at a time when the long tenure of former PM Mari Alkatiri and Lu Olo at the helm of the historical party is under challenge from another former PM Rui Araujo and military veteran Jose “Somotxo” Sequiera. While the challengers are members of the Fretilin central committee, and were outwardly supporting Lu Olo, more junior members of their faction were openly involved in the Lere campaign, and their leaders’ sympathies are believed to lie there too.

Although Lere’s campaign failed to live up to his team’s expectations, their fourth-place finish with 7.6 percent clearly sapped the strength of Lu Olo’s vote. This gave Lere considerable bargaining power inside Fretilin, which responded with a major recognition of his senior veteran status, in the search for his second-round endorsement. In the end, however, Lere has taken the significant move of leaving the second-round choice to his supporters. This suggests a substantial potential split in the party, pending a leadership challenge later this year. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether second-round votes in Lere’s home district of Lautem — where he performed best — return to Fretilin or not.

The incoming President will be installed on 20 May, the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Timor-Leste’s independence.

Michael Leach is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University of Technology.

Banner image: Fretilin supporters show party pride in lead up to first round of voting - March 17, 2022. Credit: Timor-Leste National Police, Facebook.