East Timor: Uncertainty over future government

The June 30 election has resulted in neither of the two main contenders — the ruling party Fretilin and the recently formed CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconctruction) — gaining an outright majority for a new parliament. Fretilin secured 29% of the vote, followed by CNRT with 24%. After the result was announced by the National Election Commission on July 9, a process of wrangling ensued within the East Timorese elite over how the government shall be composed and who shall lead it.

The close margin between Fretilin and CNRT, led by former president and national hero Xanana Gusmao, has intensified the tussle for leadership of a government of national unity — or Grand Inclusion as it has also been called. Fretilin Leader Jose Teixeira referred to the process in a July 6 interview on ABC Radio as "horse-trading". President Jose Ramos Horta, considered close to Gusmao, has been involved in consultations with elected parties and other groups, such as the bishops from the two dioceses of East Timor.

With nearly 47% of the East Timorese people opting for one of the other 12 parties or coalitions, the result indicates that the traditional appeal of much of the older political elite has slid dramatically since the 2001 Constituent Assembly and presidential election.

Fretilin's vote was nearly halved but Gusmao, with his historical prominence in the independence struggle and more recently as president, was not able to muster enough support to win over the bulk of Fretilin's former support base. These voters turned to other smaller parties, from Christian-influenced parties, through to parties with traditional-based ties, through to the leftist Socialist Party of Timor (PST). The National Unity Party (PUN), which had not run in previous elections, gained nearly 5%, in part due to tacit approval of its policies from the leadership of the Catholic Church.

Two of the newer formations attracted solid votes — 15.73% for the coalition between the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), and 11.3% for the Democratic Party (PD). The vote for these parties and other smaller parties was especially strong in districts in the west and south-west, as well as in the capital, Dili. Seven parties won a place in the 65-seat parliament: Fretilin (21 seats), CNRT (18), ASDT-PSD (11), PD (8), PUN (3), the AD KOTA-PPT coalition (2) and the United National Democratic Timorese Resistance (Undertim — 2).

While CNRT and Fretilin have criticised each other over the economic and social policies that each have campaigned on, they do not hold fundamentally different ideological outlooks on the substance of these policies. Differences are primarily in how some of these policies are implemented, reflected most sharply in the proposed administration and use of income from the Petroleum Fund.

Despite some incidents of confrontation between party supporters, including acts of intimidation and violence, all reports from election observers to date have declared that the ballot took place in fair and largely peaceful conditions. The high turnout of just over 80% of registered voters (including many first-time voting Timorese youth) points to a strong push for change and for a government that can deal with the major social and economic problems that most East Timorese people face.

The leadership of both the CNRT and Fretilin have made public statements that they would not form a unity government. CNRT declared that it had secured the support of ASDT-PSD and PD to form a coalition government. "We have decided to make an alliance for the stability of the country. We will work to establish terms of reference", Gusmao stated at a press conference on July 6.

The Fretlin central leadership met over the weekend of July 7-8 and announced that it too was negotiating with other elected parties to form a coalition government. At a press conference on July 9, Fretilin secretary-general Mari Alkatiri said Fretilin "does not abdicate its right to form government" and that "stability is the most important question at the moment".

PUN leader Fernanda Borges was reported in the Suara Timor Lorasae and Diario Nacional on July 12 as saying: "We want to be the opposition party in the national parliament, to focus on justice and go against cronyism, corruption and nepotism in the country." Cornellio Gama (also known by the alias "L7") — a former Falantil guerrilla leader and head of Undertim — called for Fretilin and CNRT to "collaborate and work together".

The friction between the leadership of CNRT and Fretilin has entered a new phase with calls for a government of national unity. The pressure is now upon these parties to set aside differences and stitch-up an acceptable deal and compromise while ensuring they hold strong ministerial and executive roles, as well as enough influence over their coalition partners to keep a government of national unity together.