Timor-Leste: Timor at the Polls

2007

Anna Powles

On June 30 2007 the nation of Timor-Leste went to the polls for the third time in as many months but this vote - to form parliament - will determine the political future of the stalwarts of Timorese resistance and post-independence politics: Fretilin. Fretilin's future has been dim since its trumping in the April presidential elections following a year of political and social upheaval and many Timorese are questioning Fretilin's 'moral authority' to govern.

The contenders for shared power - an outright majority win is unlikely, therefore a coalition government most probable - include former President and prime-ministerial candidate, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao's party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (its acronym, CNRT, is helpfully reminiscent of the 1988-2001 partisan coalition of parties formed under the umbrella group of the National Council of Timorese Resistance), the centre-left Partido Democractica (PD) led by presidential hopeful and champion of the youth vote, Fernando 'La Sama' de Araujo, and the alliance between the traditional Associacao Social Democrata (ASDT) Timorense and the moderate Partido Social Democrata (PSD) respectively led by Francesco Xavier do Amaral and Lúcia Maria Brandăo Freitas Lobato with former governor Mario Carrascalao number one on their ticket.

Fretilin currently hold two-thirds of the 65 seats in parliament but its dismal performance in the presidential elections bespoke of a vast waning of public support. Internal divisions between the 'Maputo clique' of Alkatiri's ilk, former exiles in Mozambique, and the 'Mudansa' or reformist faction who have thrown their lot in with Gusmao and CNRT, are potentially fatal and the schism between church and state (ie. Fretilin, and Alkatiri, in particular) has left the extremely influential Catholic Church in a familiar position to sway voters from the pulpit. Needless to say the Church is simpatico to Gusmao.

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report estimates that CNRT will win approximately 20-25% of the vote sufficient to lead a government in coalition with smaller parties which is perhaps just as well, as CNRT has, according to the ICG report, 'a poorly developed structure, no policies and little more going for it than its leader's charisma.' (International Crisis Group, 2007). But, the Report argues, this (coupled with good policy advice) may be what is needed to heal the political and social divisions exposed during the April and May 2006 crisis.

Political campaigning has been relatively peaceful in part due to the presence of the 1600-strong International Security Force (ISF) and, perhaps inevitably, focused on personality over policies which has allowed for corresponding insults over pork-barrelled politics and corruption (Alkatiri) and inexperience and lack of policy - and policy pragmatism - (Gusmao). However, five issues dominate as the key determinants for long-term stability: (1) food security; (2) use of the 1.4 billion petroleum fund; (3) security sector reform; (5) severe unemployment and the youth; and (5) the internally displaced population.

Food insecurity is the most critical factor because it is underpins national security, the economy, and social cohesion. The June 2007 report by the World Food Program (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO), found that an estimated 210,000-220,000 rural population will require emergency food assistance from October 2007-March 2008. Maize, Timor's staple crop, declined by 30% due to drought, compounded by a drop of 20% in rice production. According to the report, only 36% of Timorese households are food secure and global chronic malnutrition affects 47% of the population. Food security is therefore an issue of national security with the likelihood of tensions arising as a consequence of food shortages or perceived unequal distirbution of food relief (for instance, IDPs receive food aid, subsistance farmers do not).

Public reactions to the new government - of either political character - will no doubt reflect voter disappointment and frustration as well as jubilence but hopefully the new government will move swiftly to prevent further street violence. Timor's future is at a crossroads with political expectations reflecting the rightful sense of those belonging to a resource-rich independent nation. It is up to its political leaders to stay the course once more.

Watchpoint: The winners of the 2007 parliamentary elections will have a five-year term to address many of these issues but it will be the short-term decision-making to alleviate the food security crisis and the prioritizing of government spending, which will influence the popular response.

WATCHPOINT: The winners of the 2007 parliamentary elections will have a five-year term to address many of these issues but it will be the short-term decision-making to alleviate the food security crisis and the prioritizing of government spending, which will influence the popular response.

 

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