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Challenges ahead for the next government of East Timor

By Michael Leach - posted Wednesday, 27 June 2007


While Jose Ramos-Horta’s emphatic victory in the runoff round of presidential elections offers new hope of political stability in East Timor, all eyes are on the more important parliamentary elections on June 30. The party or coalition commanding a majority in the 65-member assembly parliament will form government, and determine who fills the more powerful post of Prime Minister.

Xanana Gusmao’s new party CNRT, strongly allied to Ramos-Horta, will be seeking to emulate the Nobel laureate’s success in the runoff vote and form a new government to replace the current Fretilin administration.

But with 14 political parties contesting the poll, the parliamentary election more closely resembles the divisive multi-party format of the first presidential vote.

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New changes to the electoral law requiring counting to take place in district capitals, rather than voting stations - purportedly aimed at reducing the risk of village-level intimidation - may see an increased number of vote-rigging claims.

Sixty-five representatives will be elected under a party-list proportional representation system to serve five-year terms. Smaller parties must reach a 3 per cent threshold to be eligible for seats, which should rule out more than half those running. The key numbers to watch will be a governing majority of 33, and supermajority of 44, which allows for constitutional changes.

In the absence of political polling, the first round presidential election figures offer the only available indication of possible outcomes.

One unwelcome trend from the first round presidential vote was the emergence of three regional voting blocs. The eastern districts returned majorities for Fretilin’s candidate Lu Olo, while the central districts around Dili were Ramos-Horta’s stronghold, and western districts voted overwhelmingly for other opposition party leaders, such as Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo of the Democratic Party (PD).

In many cases, these results reflected the origins of party leaders in different language and ethnic groups, indicating that regional political loyalties run deep. For the next government, this presents a worrying potential for political “balkanisation”, highlighting the nation-building challenges that still face East Timor after five years of independence.

If a similar vote distribution was repeated on June 30, no single party will come close to a parliamentary majority in their own right. However, the four main anti-Fretilin opposition parties would together approach the coalition supermajority figure of 44 seats.

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The strong likelihood is that Xanana Gusmao's CNRT will form a governing coalition with PD and other opposition parties after June 30. The position of prime minister will go to the coalition partner with largest number of seats. Gusmao has the higher profile with a broader support base and is therefore favourite, but Lasama’s PD has the more organised party structure, and a strong support base among a younger generation of voters, and in the west of the country.

The likely “kingmakers” will be two smaller western-based opposition parties running in formal coalition. While this coalition has an informal alliance with PD, they are likely to favour the high profile former president if he polls strongly, with Lasama offered the post of deputy Prime Minister.

Such a result would see Fretilin out of office, but remaining the largest single party in parliament with close to one-third of the seats, waiting in the wings should new coalitions prove unstable.

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A shorter version of this article appeared in The Canberra Times on June 27, 2007.



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About the Author

Michael Leach is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. He is co-editor, with Damien Kingsbury, of East Timor: Beyond Independence, published by Monash University Press.

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