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Timor-Leste election: Likely victory for Lu Olo suggests business as usual

It seems participation in the resistance to the Indonesia occupation remains the cornerstone of political legitimacy in Timor-Leste

Photo: Getty Images/James D Morgan
Photo: Getty Images/James D Morgan
Published 21 Mar 2017   Follow @MP_Leach

The count so far in Timor-Leste's presidential election appears to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN's Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres. With some 69% of votes counted, Guterres has received just under 60% of the national vote. Securing a clear majority in the first round will mean a run-off round won't be required for the first time since 2002.

A former guerrilla commander and 24-year veteran of the military resistance to Indonesia's occupation, Lu Olo was running for the third time, having been runner-up to Jose Ramos Horta in 2007, and to the current President Taur Matan Ruak in 2012, who is leaving the position to run in July's parliamentary elections. His chances of success received a massive boost in January when he was endorsed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) leader and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, effectively making his candidacy a joint nomination by the two largest parties, the CNRT and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), who formed a government of national unity in early 2015. On track to double the 30% he received in the first rounds of voting in 2007 and 2012, Lu Olo's success this time around highlights the power of Gusmão to politically anoint the President, having also done so 2007 and 2012. Of particular significance, it looks like Timor-Leste will have its first President to be formally affiliated to a political party since the restoration of independence.

In likely second place, the education minister and secretary-general of the third largest party in parliament (the Democratic Party - PD) Antonio da Conceicão has received close to 30% of votes counted, with the other six candidates sharing the remaining 10%. While da Conceicão's supporters had hoped to take the election to a runoff round in April, the combination of the two major political forces in the country (Xanana Gusmão and FRETILIN) appears to have proved too powerful. Also known by his clandestine resistance name 'Kalohan' (cloud), da Conceicão received the support of his own Democratic Party, the smaller party KHUNTO and, significantly, the new party of the current President Ruak, the People's Liberation Party (PLP). Though the PLP initially recommended a conscience vote in the presidential election, Ruak's endorsement of da Conceicão last week suggests that the more competitive parties opposing the current power-sharing executive have drawn some 30% of the vote. As the PLP is yet to formally start its parliamentary campaign, it will take some encouragement from da Conceicão's performance. One note of potential concern to FRETILIN is the relatively strong performance of da Conceicão in the exclave of Oecusse, where FRETILIN has been leading the Special Social Market Economy Zone project known as ZEESM. At the close of counting last night, the Oecussi vote was close to 50-50, suggesting mixed local perceptions of outcomes to date.

While the presidency has a formal role in the formation of government, and holds a partial veto over legislation, executive power lies overwhelmingly with the prime ministership, making the parliamentary elections the more important poll. The likely presidential result suggests the welcome prospect of a reinvigorated parliamentary opposition force, yet it also hints at the real possibility of a 'business as usual' outcome from the July elections. Certainly, opponents to the government's infrastructure spending-led development policies and 'consensus' brand of nationalist politics face an uphill battle. While da Conceicão sought to appeal to a younger generation of East Timorese, comments from the powerful Catholic Church that younger leaders were not yet capable of sustaining a political consensus were a substantial blow. What we know of voting outcomes so far also demonstrates that participation in the resistance to the Indonesia occupation remains the cornerstone of political legitimacy in Timor-Leste, 15 years after the restoration of independence, as a recent Asia Foundation study made clear.

After media reports suggesting Lu Olo's election might herald a change in direction on the Timor Sea negotiation, his campaign has clarified that his position did not diverge from that of the present government. Related reports of testimony to the Australian senate enquiry suggesting that Timor-Leste's termination of the CMATS treaty could 'create a failed state' appear to conflate two separate issues. While the strategy of asserting legal rights to a maritime boundary could indeed see reduced future royalties from Greater Sunrise, a range of positive net outcomes are also possible.

Either way, it is the rate of expenditure of the national petroleum fund that remains the major threat to Timor-Leste's long-term financial viability. The risk therefore has less to do with Timor-Leste's legal strategy, and more to do with the prevailing approach to infrastructure spending, and would remain an issue whether or not current border arrangements change. While the government remains convinced that large-scale infrastructure spending is the road to economic diversification and jobs, Timor-Leste's lively civil society is less convinced, and continues to vigorously debate these issues, which are likely to feature in the parliamentary campaign.

If, as seems most likely, there is no runoff presidential election to contest in April, Lu Olo will assume the presidency on 20 May for a five-year term. The all-important parliamentary elections, scheduled for early July, will determine who forms the next government. The strong support for Lu Olo in yesterday's first round voting suggests the present power-sharing combination of CNRT and FRETILIN remains strongly competitive. President Ruak and his PLP party have the best part of four months to make inroads.

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