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Timor-Leste hits the democratic reset button

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Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta speaks during a joint press conference with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr at the Malacanang palace in Manila, Philippines, 10 November 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Rolex Dela Pena).

In Brief

In Timor-Leste, incumbent president Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and the Fretilin party were defeated in both the 2022 presidential and 2023 parliamentary elections, marking a return to the conventions established during the state's independence. The election results see figures acting above the political fray by not muddling their democratic responsibility with partisan motives — such as charismatic leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta. But the potential for generational change towards new party leadership is emerging.


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Timor-Leste’s last political cycle had two electoral episodes — the presidential elections in 2022 and the parliamentary elections in 2023. In both elections, the public vehemently rejected the main tenets of former president Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres’ term and returned candidates to key state positions aligned with the revival of conventions established with independence.

When the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became an independent state on 20 May 2002, a long period of Portuguese colonial and Indonesian neo-colonial rule drew to a close. The emerging nation made a unique decision: to build a democratic polity alongside state-building and reinforcing a national identity. This was all the more extraordinary as Timor-Leste had no memory or tradition of any form of democratic governance. The configuration of the democratic institutions created ‘rational-legal’ legitimacy through free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage. Yet, charismatic and traditional forms of political legitimacy endured and established a virtuous dialogue with ‘modern’ ones.

The 2017 presidential elections inaugurated a new era when Lu-Olo of the Fretilin party was elected. He had run in previous elections, but had never overcome the stigma associated with his partisan approach which departed from the ‘independent president’ model that reserved a moderating power for presidents rather than a direct influence on the executive.

This time, he blended his status as Fretilin chairman with the support of previous rivals — including the charismatic and extremely popular former president and resistance leader Xanana Gusmao. They had been brought together by the ‘government of national inclusion’ led by Fretilin cadre Rui Araujo. This government, established in 2015 when Xanana voluntarily relinquished the premiership, was supposed to benefit from the support of all parliamentary parties and be composed mainly of members from the new generation.

But after electing the largest parliamentary group — though not the majority of seats —  the Fretilin claimed the premiership for its leader Mari Alkatiri, thereby failing to follow through on the pre-election understanding on the generational turnover. From then on, political instability and open hostility occupied the duration of Lu-Olo’s term in office. During his tenure, the government failed for the first time to secure parliamentary investiture and was kept in a caretaker condition for months until mid-2018. Parliament was dissolved in January 2018 and early elections were called for later that year.

Lu-Olo intervened in the political crisis, supporting his party’s stance and claims. Forced to appoint a government without Fretilin members because of the 2018 legislative polls, he refused to swear in a dozen ministers mostly from Gusmao’s party CNRT — the largest in the winning coalition. The tug-of-war lasted for almost two years, during which the executive was deprived of key members, in a situation that defied constitutional normality.

Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a climate of malaise among political actors. As tensions developed over the state of emergency, Lu-Olo masterminded a major government reorganisation. CNRT tried to force a clarification of the unprecedented ‘half-government’ by withdrawing support from then-prime minister Taur Matan Ruak when he presented the budget for 2021. But Lu-Olo did not dismiss Taur Matan Ruak. Instead, he revamped the government’s composition by bringing Fretilin ministers into the executive and forcing Gusmao and his party into opposition.

Political instability marked 2017–22, largely due to the president’s intervention into political affairs previously deemed the realm of parliament and favouring his party rather than performing his mandate to act ‘above the party fray’. A decision by the Timor-Leste Supreme Court of Justice denied a petition by some parliamentarians to examine the president’s behaviour on grounds of overstepping his constitutional competencies. Consequently, the room for presidential manoeuvre was enlarged.

In 2022, Lu-Olo was soundly defeated in the second round of presidential elections with 37.9 per cent of the vote. Jose Ramos-Horta, Timor-Leste’s second-ever president, returned on a platform to re-establish the convention regarding the ‘independence’ of the head of state and the scope of his political mandate.

During the 2023 parliamentary elections, a second defeat for the outgoing majority was clear. Fretilin polled its lowest score in post-independence elections with 25.7 per cent while Gusmao’s party fell just short of an absolute majority, with 31 of 65 parliamentary seats. Gusmao was able to form a government coalition and be appointed prime minister.

This election marks a distinct return to the convention where presidents are expected to behave above the party fray and not muddle their democratic responsibility with partisan motives. With Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, charismatic legitimacy may continue to coexist with rational-legal forms of political appointments, resuming a foundational trait of Timor-Leste’s democratic life.

But some point to a need for generational turnover in Timor-Leste. As a Fretilin cadre, Araujo has expressed the view that his party ought to contemplate substantial renovations and unsuccessfully tried to make such a move when he challenged Alkatiri for Fretilin leadership in 2022. Others in different parties seem to be labouring towards the same goal, such as CNRT politician Dionisio Babo, Democratic Party politician Antonio Conceicao and Fidelis People’s Liberation Party politician Leite Magalhaes.

With this potential shift, it is difficult to imagine that the Gerasaun Tuan — long term leaders now in their 70s — will be in the front line for the next electoral cycle. But the replacement of heroes is never an easy task.

Rui Graça Feijó is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

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