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Developments in Timor Leste’s 2012 presidential elections

By Chris White - posted Thursday, 12 April 2012

I am in Dili for the 16th April Presidential run-off between Lu Olo and Ruak. On March 23rd in the first Presidential round, Fretilin’s Francisco Lu Olo Guterres gained the highest vote with 28.8 per cent, former Chief of the Defence Force Major General Taur Matan Ruak, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s candidate secured 25.7 per cent, Independent President Jose Ramos-Horta coming third with 17.5 per cent and the Democrat Party’s Fernando Lasama de Araújo who is the President of the Parliament came fourth with 17.3 per cent of the vote. The remaining eight candidates had negligible votes.

The parliamentary elections at the end of June will elect MPs based on proportional representation in one national electorate of some 640,000 voters and on party lists. Since 2007, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao with his party CNRT have lead the parliament in a majority of parties in the Alliance Majority government.

Timor-Leste has continuous national and international presidential election coverage. Australian media reports were often wrong, especially on the debate about Ruak’s policy for compulsory military service and Timor Leste’s President is which in not “largely ceremonial or symbolic”.


On polling day, voters queued before 7am in one booth in Dili, with the U.N. and police on hand, but no incidents. The local officials were most respectful to the people. The counting began in one school booth with 100 voters watching the votes being counted recorded one by one showing Timor-Leste electoral organisation’s goal of transparency. The non-compulsory vote was down to 78 per cent. The heavy rains and distances voters travelled to return to their local village where they are registered made it difficult. Timor Lester’s first fully run election was democratic and fair.

Too many media reports failed to highlight Lu Olo winning the most votes. He is likely to just win and be an excellent President. For balance Lu Olo’s campaigning and political presentation shows his Presidential quality. I watched a film/DVD featuring Lu Olo’s life as a resistance leader to 2001 - by Film Australia narrated by Cate Blanchett (‘East Timor Birth of a Nation’) with ‘Rosa’ Story’ (2012). Lu Olo is experienced as the Parliament’s first President and President of the responsible Fretilin opposition. The Fretilin vote was maintained, but disappointing for campaigners expecting more. Tim Anderson has offered a good explanation of why he believes Lu Olo will be President.

Taur Ruak is doing well in formerly Fretilin strongholds. Xanana Gusmao’s government has control of the state and incumbency and vastly increased spending by government tenders for millions in economic development but also distributing rice linked to voting (but all government’s do it, and the people need the rice).

Where will the votes of the losing candidates go in the deciding Presidential vote? President Ramos-Horta in another superb media performance gracefully bowed out. He thanked everyone. So is he without political power? He still dominates. I witnessed at their joint public press conference the next day with President Ramos-Horta and Lasama - third and fourth combining with 35 per cent of their votes and declaring their voters will decide the Presidency and government.

Some press commentators deliberately pushed an agenda by reporting that Horta/Lasama favoured Ruak/Xanana, they were against Fretilin, and they were joining together in the Democrat party for government – none of this has been confirmed. No hint then who they will support. Behind the scenes’ bargaining continues.

Ramos-Horta has said: “We appeal to the remaining two candidates for a clean election. Please no threats, no dark clouds of threats. This is not good for our country. We will be watching. We will not channel our votes to anyone who pressures, makes aggressive speeches.” Who says that President Ramos-Horta no longer has any power?


Some of the smaller parties the Timorese Social Democratic Association, former Fretilin Minister Rogerio Lobato (who ran fifth with 3.5 per cent), the three female first round candidates, plus Lurdes Bessa, the Vice-President of the Democratic Party (PD), now back Lu Olo.

Ramos-Horta is not in a party and is unlikely to be able to instruct all of his supporters to vote one way and the same applies to Lasama – the votes will divide up. Read Damien Kingsbury’s take on what may happen. As the PM picks his Ministers not in Parliament, Ramos-Horta may return again as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Pat Walsh in an article on “Jose Ramos-Horta's Ian Thorpe moment” says “Ramos-Horta is a national treasure. His contribution to East Timor's liberation is legendary and as a non-partisan president since 2007 he has worked tirelessly to offset Timor's image as a near failed state by rebuilding unity, rebranding East Timor as a peaceful country and serving as a critical part of its checks and balances.” He is open to criticism including that he has contributed to a culture of impunity and has sometimes exceeded his powers and interfered in issues that are properly the business of government, not the presidency.

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About the Author

Chris White, a union blogger, was formerly the Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of SA.

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