Back to the Polls Following Timor-Leste’s Presidential Elections

Headed for a run-off . . . 

On March 19, Timor-Leste, a country of 1.3 million that gained independence from Indonesia following a UN-backed referendum in 1999, held its fifth presidential election. The vote featured a record 16 candidates from diverse backgrounds, including four women and five former youth and student movement leaders. Although all nominees are formally independent, the front runners were supported by the country’s two largest parties — with incumbent Francisco Guterres being supported by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), and former president and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta backed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). Although Ramos-Horta successfully secured twice the number of votes as Guterres, he was just shy of the 50 per cent majority required to win, meaning a run-off will be scheduled for April.

Fluid political allegiances and a court challenge dismissed . . .

In 2020, FRETILIN and CNRT were embroiled in a power struggle over the wielding of power by the president, who appoints the country’s prime minister, the head of government, and other ministers. When FRETILIN-aligned President Guterres refused to appoint nine CNRT nominees for ministerial roles in 2018, CNRT responded by vetoing the national budget in 2019 and denouncing the FRETILIN government as illegitimate. The prime minister, who was the leader of a minor party aligned with the CNRT, subsequently reversed his earlier resignation – citing the need for a stable government during the COVID-19 pandemic – and formed a parliamentary majority with FRETILIN and the youth-backed party KHUNTO. And although CNRT members attempted to challenge Guterres’ decisions in the Court of Appeal, the court refused to do so without a formal impeachment procedure. The March 19 elections ultimately involved shifts in political alliances, especially as a possible Ramos-Horta presidency could mark FRETILIN’s move away from the governing coalition and back to the opposition.

A more inclusive or illusive politics?

In addition to a shifting sea of alliances, the new president will have to address ongoing sociopolitical conflicts in Timor-Leste. With the government reliant on dwindling oil and gas supplies for revenues, its budgetary position will soon become unsustainable, especially as nearly half of the population lives in extreme poverty. Moreover, despite the greater political representation of women via a parliamentary quota system, discussion of women’s rights and gender equality was nearly absent amongst candidates. At the same time, the country has experienced a relatively controlled pandemic response and fosters a vibrant independent media and civil society. And despite recent parliamentary instability, the maintenance of a calm electoral process positions the country among the most resilient democracies in Southeast Asia.