On 17 March 2012, for the third time in East Timor’s history, East Timorese voters will go to the polls to democratically decide the next president. Unlike in the 2007 elections when there were less than five candidates, this year there are more than ten candidates fiercely competing for the presidency.
Taur Matan Ruak and Fransisco Guterres, know as Lu Olo will be the strongest candidates due to their political affiliations with the two biggest political parties in East Timor. Matan Ruak’s candidacy is endorsed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) Party led by current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Lu-Olo has been nominated by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). Both Taur Matan Ruak and Lu-Olo are also former resistant fighters.
Other candidates include Fernando La Sama (the current President of the National Parliament), Rogério Lobato (former Interior Minister and member of Fretilin), Lucas da Costa (Member of Parliament), Jose Luis Guterres (former Foreign Affairs Minister), Manuel Tilman (Member of Parliament), Francisco Xavier (The Timorese Social Democratic Association), Angela Freitas (Labor Party), Abilio Araujo (The Timorese Nationalist Party) and the incumbent President of East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta. Each candidate has distinctive ability and experience, making the elections unusually fascinating.
For many months there has been speculation about whether the incumbent president, Jose Ramos Horta, would seek another five-year term. While other candidacies were well publicised, the incumbent president’s candidacy was kept secret until the announcement on 31 January.
Prior to this announcement, President Horta signaled his intention not to stand for reelection for a second term. Thus, the announcement of his candidacy was met with mixed feelings – both surprise, and for those who wanted his re-election, relief.
Given the high number of candidates nominating, voting intentions are difficult to predict. Some observers argue that the presence of high profile candidates such as Matan Ruak, Lu Olo and others will automatically weaken Ramos Horta’s likely reelection. This argument is based on the fact that during his presidency President Horta seemed to use his prerogative powers to pardon those who committed human rights abuses, for example, the 2009 release of Martinus Bere who was accused of killing innocent civilians in Suai District in 1999.
President Horta was perceived to be prioritising good relations with Indonesia over due process, handing over Martinus Bere to the Indonesian authorities. In addition, his decision to call on the current coalition government to form a new government after the 2007 parliamentary elections had made him unpopular with supporters of the Fretilin party.
Though these claims might be justified, such assessments may also be misleading.
Firstly, it must be noted that during his tenure, Ramos Horta established good rapport with the population throughout the country. He is in constant touch with communities in rural areas and had initiated a number of programs for rural poor households ranging from providing housing, to calling on the government to use some of the country’s petroleum fund to provide financial support to elders. At the presidential office he installed free Internet connections to allow students and others to access the Internet and familiarise themselves with current information and technology. Driving his own car in and around Dili, surrounded by children, makes him appear approachable, while maintaining his status as the president of the country.
In a country just recovered from a traumatic past, such moves have a positive influence over the desire for peace and reconciliation. The evidence of nationwide support for Ramos Horta’s candidacy can be seen in the recent petitions signed by nearly 120,000 people requesting Ramos Horta to run for a second term. This show of support for President Horta has dwarfed support for other candidates in a country with just over 1.1 million people.
Horta, who initially opted to not engage in the approaching election campaign, has avoided direct contact with other well-known candidates like Matan Ruak and Lu Olo. This strategy is thought by many to increase his chances of winning.
Secondly, during his tenure Ramos Horta embraced forgiveness, peace and stability as the foundation of his policies and these have been translated into actions. In the 2006 leadership crisis, despite being faced with great danger, he vociferously pursued dialogue with the rebels to end the military crisis, although as head of the army forces, he had all the powers at his disposal to force the rebels to the negotiating table.
Furthermore, upon return from his medical treatment after being shot in 2008, Ramos Horta called for dialogue instead of pursuing revenge. He travelled extensively throughout the country to meet with victims of the 2006 crisis and assisted them in rebuilding their communities. This put him in direct contact with people, and fostered a sense of unity between him and the population as a whole.
Lastly, regardless whoever wins the upcoming presidential elections, President Horta’s skills in both domestic and international issues are still highly needed. His diplomatic skills and passions for rebuilding the country have been tested and should not be underestimated. As of right now East Timor is on its critical juncture to pursue regional integration with Asia, Pacific and the rest of the world: undeniably Horta’s contributions are paramount.