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Timor-Leste elections suggest reframed cross-party government

FRETILIN has received the largest share of the vote but the PLP could be the party to watch in the future.

Photo: Flickr/Kate Dixon
Photo: Flickr/Kate Dixon
Published 24 Jul 2017   Follow @MP_Leach

With final votes tallied in the Timor-Leste parliamentary elections overnight, the results in Dili suggest a reframed power-sharing government will emerge, showing some continuity with the previous government but with a different flavour.

The two main parties - the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (FRETILIN) and the Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor (CNRT) - have once again taken the majority of the vote, with 29.65% and 29.45% respectively. One interesting twist to the result is that FRETILIN has received the largest vote-share, a reversal of 2012. Though FRETILIN’s lead is narrow, it appears that Timor-Leste’s D’Hondt proportional system will deliver the party 23 MPs to CNRT’s 22. FRETILIN’s professional and modern campaign appears to have paid dividends, as the party maintained its 2012 vote share despite the rise of two new contestants in Timor-Leste’s vibrant politics. For its part, the CNRT vote dropped from 37% in 2012 to 29.45%, affected by the immediate ex-President Taur Matan Ruak’s new party, the Partidu Libertasaun Popular (PLP).

Though no party has a majority of 33 seats, FRETILIN’s victory gives an advantage to the historical party, as it will commence and lead negotiations to form government. The chances are strong that a new power-sharing agreement of some form involving former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT will be reached, lending the result some continuity, albeit with a new flavour that shifts the status quo.

FRETILIN leader and former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has already noted that his party’s ‘arms are open’ to discussions with all the elected parties, and the first conversation he will have is with the ‘inescapable’ figure of Timorese politics and CNRT leader Gusmão. Throughout the campaign, FRETILIN had committed to continue to working with Gusmão in the interests of political stability.

For its part, Ruak’s PLP has performed very creditably in its first outing, with 10.6% of the national vote, an outcome which marks it as the new third force in Timor-Leste politics and will translate into eight seats. Ruak’s early comments suggest the PLP will act as an active opposition in the parliament. While the previous government (effectively a power-sharing executive between the two largest parties, led by Gusmão’s CNRT) brought political stability to Timor-Leste and ended conflicts within Dili’s small political elite, the downside of those arrangements was a far weaker opposition voice in parliament. The emergence of the PLP, which combines resistance veterans with members of Dili’s young intelligentsia, will meet civil society’s desires for a more active opposition. Notable also was the way the Partido Democrático (PD) vote remained strong, with a share of 9.8% and seven seats, despite some commentators arguing that they would fail in this election following the death of their founder in Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araújo in 2015. One reason for PD’s relative success is their strong party structure, second only to FRETILIN in terms of district organisation.

Of equal interest is the rise of Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nacional Timor Oan (KHUNTO), with 6.4% of the vote and five seats. This party is linked to Timor-Leste’s large martial arts groups, and pitched its campaign at Timor-Leste’s unemployed and disaffected youth. In this sense, the party has a genuine social base that has seen its vote more than double from what it received in 2012.

Early analysis of the results suggests that the rise of the PLP has occurred mainly at the expense of CNRT, which has seen its 2012 vote drop almost 8%. On another reading, the rise of both the PLP and KHUNTO could be a sign of shifting voter alignments as Timor-Leste’s demographic ‘youth bulge’ enters political life, with some 20% of the roll voting for the first time in 2017. If so, the PLP vote could be one to watch in the future.

The parties will now enter negotiations to form a government. FRETILIN and CNRT offer the only two-party combination that can deliver a majority in parliament, with other combinations requiring three parties to reach 33 seats. That said, a broader government involving more than two parties remains a live option, as does the idea of a power-sharing executive, in which ministries are shared between a number of parties in a way that does not necessarily constitute a formal coalition. One notable question will be whether the smaller parties accept ministries if they are offered, or choose to act as an unfettered parliamentary opposition. While ministries bring greater influence, parties accepting ministries will become less effective voices in parliament.

In this process, there is no question CNRT will enter the negotiations with considerable bargaining power. In particular, Gusmão is likely to be accommodated in a senior position of his choosing, befitting his political status. As Alkatiri’s comments suggest, FRETILIN has publicly committed to working with Gusmão in the interest of national stability – a more interesting question is whether other parties will be offered ministries to widen the power-sharing.

For Timor-Leste, running the national elections entirely on its own for the first time, the parliamentary elections were notably peaceful (despite complaints of voter intimidation by former guerrillas in Baucau district) and a clear technical success – a tribute to Timor-Leste’s highly competent electoral administration agencies. During the campaigning period there was a spirit of friendly competitiveness between supporters of different parties, a far more amicable tone than that of the 2012 and 2007 elections.

For Australia, the implications of the 2017 election are potentially significant. Any government emerging in the coming weeks is unlikely to shift the unified position of Timor-Leste’s parties to demarcate maritime boundaries, and Gusmão himself is likely to retain the lead in bilateral negotiations. But a new government in Dili presents an opportunity to reset the relationship, which is at an historical low point, with no ministerial visits from Australia since 2013. The simple notion that the new government will have a different composition with a wider array of leaders will likely be welcomed by Canberra.

Also of significance is the powerful US House Armed Services Committee, whose recent annual National Defence Authorisation Act for the fiscal year 2018, was specifically amended to encourage resolution of the maritime boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste. With the South China Sea disputes clearly in the background, the committee has noted its belief that negotiations between Australia and Timor-Leste to establish maritime boundaries sends ‘a positive signal to other states in the region regarding adherence to a rules-based international order’. The Act goes on to highlight the committee’s interest in ‘ensuring processes to resolve territorial and maritime disputes are done fairly and peacefully in accordance to international law’, and notes the ‘potential security benefits’ likely to flow from a peaceful resolution of the dispute. There is little question that this shift in Washington signals extra pressure on Canberra to resolve the matter in the current UNCLOS conciliation process, due to conclude in September.

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