The return of Ramos-Horta

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

Michael Leach analyses the implications of Jose Ramos Horta’s return to the presidency in Timor-Leste.

As was widely expected, the second-round presidential election in Timor-Leste delivered a comfortable victory for Jose Ramos-Horta. At the final count on Wednesday, he led the incumbent President, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

After a quiet day at the polls Tuesday, Ramos-Horta was able to build substantially on his 46 percent in the first round, as voters for the eliminated first round candidates chose between the remaining two. Sharing that vote more or less equally, both candidates added 16 percent to their vote share. Voter participation was slightly down on the first round to 75 percent.

The day after the vote, as the count continued, Ramos-Horta struck a conciliatory note as he fronted the press, discussing the need for dialogue between the political forces in the country.  The presidential contest this year has proved something of a proxy contest between CNRT and Fretilin over control of parliament, where government is formed.  Parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for 2023, but if Ramos-Horta’s chief backer, Xanana Gusmão, has his way, these could be held earlier.  An ally in the President’s chair is the first step towards that goal.

As the current government is based on an alliance between Fretilin and two smaller parties – Prime Minister Ruak’s PLP, and KHUNTO – Timor-Leste is about to re-enter a “co-habitation” situation, with the new President backed by the CNRT.

Once installed as President, Ramos-Horta will have several options in relation to the current government. The least controversial, constitutionally and politically, will be to try to forge a new majority in the current parliament to support a remodelled government led by Xanana Gusmão and the CNRT.  Such a government could be inclusive of a several parties, although it would be unlikely to include figures closely associated with the Fretilin leadership.

Such an outcome would rely on the weight of the presidential victory shifting the current governing alliance. Ramos-Horta declared that his first-round win was a “political earthquake”, which would shake this alliance.  This was a signal that he was contemplating the option of remodelling the government from the current parliament.  Whether there is any prospect of this will be seen over the coming weeks.

Another option is the more constitutionally controversial path of dissolving parliament and calling early elections. Here, the political arguments are perhaps sounder than the constitutional ones: the new President could argue his election strongly suggests a mood for change, and a stale mandate in the parliament. Moreover, an early election could bring the presidential and parliamentary election cycles into line again.  On the other hand, the political risks for the new president are evident in the fact that no party other than CNRT appears to favour it, including parties like PD, which supported Ramos-Horta. Constitutionally, this course of action is also potentially vexed, as dissolution of parliament is normally contemplated where the parliament cannot form a government or pass a budget, rather than as a political reset mechanism for a new president.  Nonetheless, it is likely the president has such a power in practice, as Timor-Leste’s courts have to date proved reluctant to review the executive political discretions of the president, at least in the absence of a formal impeachment by the parliament.

A third option is simply to allow the current government to remain in place until early 2023, which would raise tensions with the CNRT.

With these options in mind, it is important to consider what the Presidential vote says about the political landscape.

Registered voters will today cast their votes to elect Timor’s President for the 2022-2027 term.Registered voters cast their votes to elect Timor’s President for the 2022-2027 term. Image credit: Australian Embassy in in Timor-Leste, Facebook.

First, Ramos-Horta has had a commanding victory, which clearly places pressure on the current government and the parliamentary alliance that supports it.  The narrow loss of the district of Lautem by Lu Olo – previously a stronghold for Fretilin – is also a major event, which may cause Fretilin to reflect on its internal divisions – a point Ramos-Horta was quick to note.  Whether this pressure effects change should be known in the coming weeks.  Ramos-Horta’s strong win also suggests a potential surge in the CNRT vote in the event of parliamentary elections.

On the other hand, the government parties will take some comfort from the fact Ramos-Horta’s win was closer than many predicted, and district vote breakdowns also suggest that the third biggest party, KHUNTO, was largely successful in delivering its support to Lu Olo in the second round as promised.

Importantly too, despite the narrow loss in Lautem, it appears the first-round support for the former armed forces commander General Lere, which split the Fretilin vote, largely returned to Lu Olo in the second. Indeed, the combined first-round votes of Lu Olo, KHUNTO and Lere offer a good guide to Lu Olo’s round two performances in many districts, although it is also clear that Ramos-Horta took a slice of the KHUNTO vote in districts like Ainaro. This suggests the combination of Fretilin, KHUNTO, and PLP could yet prove competitive in the event of parliamentary elections, should they stay united. It also suggests that Fretilin may have contained a potentially damaging split in the party, at least in terms of voter loyalty in the eastern districts.

That said, victory has a way of altering the status quo ante, and there are deeper problems on the Fretilin side, with a leadership challenge in the offing this year. One of the clearest differences between the two Fretilin candidates for President, Lu Olo and Lere, was Lere’s view that Fretilin should adopt a less confrontational relationship with the other key force in Timorese politics, Xanana Gusmão. This position reflects a similar argument put by the Fretilin leadership challenger, former PM Rui Araujo. The impact of this position within Fretilin is already evident, with Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri issuing a letter this week inviting dialogue with Gusmão.  Though arguably a good political move, it is also a sign of internal tensions within his party, which could come to a head later this year.

The new President will be sworn in on 20 May, the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Timor-Leste’s independence.  How the incoming president interacts with the current government and parliamentary parties will be closely watched over the coming weeks and months.

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

Banner image: Jose Ramos Horta. Image credit: Timor-Leste National Police, Facebook.