Timor-Leste: Unity and Divisions under New Leadership


Maj Nygaard-Christensen

2007 has been the year of Timor Leste's first self-administered presidential and parliamentary elections. Though not problem free, the elections were perceived by most, including election observers, as free and fair; and as a success for a young nation still struggling to overcome recent conflict.

The parliamentary election on June 30th resulted in 7 out of 14 parties and coalitions gaining seats. The previously ruling Fretilin party secured the most votes with a total of 29 percent, thus gaining 21 seats in the 65 seat parliament. Next in line came the newly established party of former President Xanana Gusmão, CNRT, with 24.10 percent, translating to 18 seats. No single party thereby secured an absolute majority of seats. In response, CNRT quickly formed the Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) with the Democratic Party (PD) and the Association of Timorese Democrats-Social Democratic Party (ASDT-PSD), thereby securing a narrow 51 percent majority.

A heated debate ensued among politicians, voters and political commentators alike over how to interpret Timor Leste's constitution and election laws on who would have the right to rule. While newly elected President José Ramos-Horta argued for a unity government, the question remained how inclusive the new government would be. In the end, Fretilin was not able to find coalition partners and on August 6, Ramos-Horta invited AMP to form government. Although Fretilin continues to hold that as the most voted for party they have the right to form a minority government, they thereby had to give way to the AMP alliance headed by Xanana Gusmão as Prime Minister. The 2007 elections have thus presented Timor Leste with a remarkably quick post-independence change of its leadership previously dominated by Fretilin; the party associated with the resistance movement against Indonesia.

Among many in Timor Leste, there is a strong sense that disunity in the political leadership leads to divisions among the population. Indeed, the crisis in 2006 is perceived by many as resulting directly from conflicts among the state leadership. Memories of the violence between emerging political parties in the 1970s lend further credence to the perception that divisions among leaders are dangerous. The current conflicts between political parties have thus given rise to fears that new divisions and violence may arise among the general population.

Certainly, lack of clarity about the implementation of election results among the political leadership intensified tensions between supporters of opposing parties. Many Fretilin voters feel that the democratic system has failed them; a perception that is strengthened by the party leadership continuing to refer to the new government as illegal and unconstitutional.

The announcement of the new government prompted an immediate deterioration of the fragile, though generally improving, security situation. Dili saw increased incidents of stone throwing, burning of tires and road blocks in the days after the announcement, but the situation in the capital quickly stabilised. The eastern districts of Baucau and Viqueque are still recovering from violence that broke out after the announcement of the result. An OCHA report from 7 September estimates that more than 330 homes were burnt and 52 houses damaged in the two districts, both considered as Fretilin strongholds. In Baucau, Church property was reported to have been targeted. This appeared to be rooted in the widespread perception that members of the Catholic Church favoured a change in leadership rather than a continued Fretilin-led government. Although there continues to be sporadic reports of violence, particularly in Viqueque, the overall situation seems to be improving.

The outbreak of violence in August underscores what are among the most immediate challenges to the new government: improving the security situation and identifying alternative solutions for approximately 100,000 IDPs who since 2006 have been settled in camps in and around Dili or in temporary housing in their home districts.

Another challenge will be for the new government and the opposition to accommodate each other. One concern noted by election observers monitoring campaigns this year, involved the tendency of parties to focus less on communicating their own programs than on pointing to the shortcomings of opposing parties. Similar tendencies have initially characterised political debates following the formation of government. Accusations are centred among others on the legitimacy of members of opposing parties, such as questioning their roles during the resistance against Indonesia. Other politicians complained of a lack of constructive communication and criticism during the presentation of the new government program. However, current disputes no doubt owe much to the lack of consensus during the process of government formation, and several politicians express a cautious optimism that communication in the parliament is slowly improving.



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