The results of Timor-Leste’s 19 April presidential run-off were unsurprising, with challenger Jose Ramos-Horta besting the incumbent, Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres, by a 24 per cent margin. As the dust settles in advance of Horta’s inauguration on 20 May, the key takeaways from the election are clear.
What happens next is anything but.
Xanana Gusmão is the indisputable kingmaker of Timorese politics. How will his alliance with Horta play out?
The Timorese people refer to Gusmão as “maun bot” – the “big brother.” He’s their most influential political leader, proverbial godfather, and an avatar for national identity. His support for candidates has been decisive in past elections, and this one was no different. Horta capitalised on Gusmão’s support – to the point where the latter’s liking appeared in the former’s logo on the ballot.
Their alliance seems strong, but fissures may already be appearing. In securing Gusmão’s support, Horta committed to pursuing a snap parliamentary election – something Gusmão has agitated for since the government led by his party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), collapsed in 2020. However, Horta has since mused about forging a new government instead of seeking an election, and in comments last week seemingly ruled out both an election and shaping a new coalition.
In doing so, Horta risks Gusmão‘s ire, and it’s important to remember that Horta isn’t the only player in this game. In the Timorese system, the president holds less power than the executive, led by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, and political parties, who exercise tight control over their party benches in the National Parliament (NP). Other actors can force a new coalition or a snap election upon Horta, and it seems unlikely that Horta won’t act upon his campaign rhetoric.
Gusmão and company will pose a simple question: if Guterres and FRETILIN were able to act on their interpretation of a president’s constitutional prerogatives, why can’t Horta do the same?
There is also a long history of Gusmão’s influence over those he endorses waning upon their entering office. His 2017 endorsement of Guterres – which was always an alliance of convenience – is evidence of this. This could happen with Horta, too; he’s an iconic figure in his own right and presumably reluctant to be viewed as a supplicant to anyone.
With that said, Gusmão has the upper hand politically and Horta must account for that. It’s unlikely their relationship collapses, but tension may occasionally spill into public view – as it does between political figures everywhere.
Horta won a mandate from the electorate. Will he use it to force political change, or will his backers use it to achieve their own aims?
Horta won in 11 of 13 municipalities, even besting Guterres in Lautem, part of the traditional geographic base for his party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN). There were local factors and internal FRETILIN politics at play in Lautem, but the result there nonetheless demonstrate Horta’s wide appeal.
Nationally, the returns reinforce the long-standing divide between the country’s eastern and western municipalities. This will impact political parties’ calculus, as they contest elections under a closed-list proportional representation system in one nation-wide electorate.
Horta’s advocates argue that the results demonstrate the government lacks popular support – and, given that it came to power in 2020 through parliamentary machinations versus an election, is illegitimate and needs to face the electorate or accommodate Gusmão and CNRT. The incumbent three-party coalition – FRETILIN, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and Enrich the National Unity of the Sons of Timor (KHUNTO) – will argue the presidential election wasn’t a barometer of support for or opposition to the government and that there is no credible reason to move the parliamentary election forward from its scheduled 2023 date.
During the campaign, Gusmão and other Horta boosters argued that the president can use constitutional triggers to dissolve parliament and force an election – an assertion that seems legally questionable. But the hallmark of Guterres’ term as president was expanding presidential powers in a manner the then CNRT-led government contested to be unconstitutional. Gusmão and company will pose a simple question: if Guterres and FRETILIN were able to act on their interpretation of a president’s constitutional prerogatives, why can’t Horta do the same?
Irrespective of the legalities, if change is to happen – whether through a snap election or forming a new government – those agitating for it must induce PLP or KHUNTO to defect. If they fail to do so, the incumbent government will continue to hold a majority in the NP. Furthermore, if one of the parties defects, the remaining two could still form a minority government and hang onto power. The politics of change stand to be convoluted and messy, given the complex web of interpersonal and familial relationships that underpins Timorese politics.
In the face of near-certain defeat, the incumbent government stayed united. Will that continue?
On the campaign trail, government party leaders made an outward show of unity, with FRETILIN’s Mari Alkatiri, PLP’s Taur Matan Ruak, and KHUNTO’s Jose dos Santos “Naimori” appearing with Guterres at rallies. But, in any political system, defeat causes tension. The rumor mill is already churning about KHUNTO’s entreaties to Horta and Gusmão, and FRETILIN will continue to grapple with internal divisions between its incumbent leadership, dominated by its old guard, and younger new-guard figures.
The three parties aren’t united around any particular ideology or program; their arrangement only came about when PLP and KHUNTO defected from the CNRT-led coalition in 2020. KHUNTO’s hand was strengthened by the performance of their party president in the first round of the presidential election, and they’re well-positioned to pick up seats at a fresh election and further strengthen their hand. That alone may be enough of an inducement to defect – and, if not, other incentives may.
If the government splits, political change will happen and accelerate the long-standing faceoff between the two men who dominate Timorese politics – Gusmão and Alkatiri. Horta is trying to foster a rapprochement between them – which should be applauded – but the country will likely continue to be held captive to the whims of Gusmão and Alkatiri’s mutual animosity.