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Timor-Leste’s presidential run-off

Following Timor-Leste’s presidential election last Saturday, the two leading candidates, Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao-backed Taur Matan Ruak, will now progress to a second round of voting in mid-April. Their success to date reflects perhaps more the relatively high level of party loyalty within Timor-Leste than support for the two as individuals.

At 28%, Lu-Olo’s vote was almost exactly the same as in the first round of the 2007 election. Ruak’s vote reflected support in 2007 from the main government party, CNRT, for outgoing president Jose Ramos-Horta, then at 22 per cent. At that time, CNRT was a new party and has since had time to consolidate in office, reflected in Ruak’s 25% vote. 

Both Lu-Olo and Ruak are well known in Timor-Leste, but neither is especially well known outside the country. That will no doubt change for one of them after April. 

The main commonality between Lu-Olo and Ruak is that they are both ‘generation of ’75’ veterans of Timor-Leste’s long guerrilla struggle for independence. Both are similarly of a younger grouping, in their 50s, than the previous presidents who are both now in their 60s.

From there, however, the differences begin. As candidates for the presidency, it is these differences that can be expected to define the successful candidate as the new president.

Ruak was Lu-Olo’s senior in Falintil, a point which Ruak highlighted in a speech at Baucau earlier in the year. The Baucau area has traditionally been a stronghold for Fretilin, although Ruak also has a personal following in the district, based on his military career.

However, the speech was viewed by many in Baucau, and elsewhere, as combative and divisive. Similarly, while Lu-Olo has not been publically combative, representing Fretilin is seen by some Timorese as potentially divisive, particularly when referring to the events of 2006.

Interestingly, Ruak was also deeply implicated in the 2006 events, being found by a UN commission of inquiry to have distributed weapons to civilians. However, he was not charged with the alleged offence and has managed to escape opprobrium for it.

In short, Lu-Olo is very much a Fretilin party representative and could be expected to progress Fretilin’s principle policy agenda. The main element of this is the sustainable development and use of Timor-Leste’s oil fund, focusing on using the interest rather than the capital of the fund to run the government and develop the country.

Given that the 2007-2012 AMP government had a policy of using both interest and capital to fund development projects, this then led to the distinct possibility that, if elected, Lu-Olo could exercise the President’s power of veto over legislation, in this case for the annual budget, assuming it continued along it current course. However, if Lu-Olo was elected as President with a Fretilin or Fretilin-led government following the 2012 parliamentary elections, his presidency would more likely be marked, as was his presidency of Fretilin, as quiet and benign.

Ruak, on the other hand, had not been a party to any views on economic development but, instead, had twice proposed compulsory military service for all Timorese youth. The first time had been in 2006 (F-FDTL 2006:60-1, 78), when the idea was rejected by parliament, and the second time was just a week before the 2012 election.

Beyond that, Ruak’s campaign poster showing him in uniform tended to imply both his desire to be seen as a military hero and, according to some, his personal regard for military values of discipline and order.   

Despite having some functions in the running of the state, the role of the President of Timor-Leste is as perhaps more so one of a unifying figure for the nation more than it is one of exercising practical authority. In this regard, despite their personal qualities, neither Lu-Olo nor Ruak are likely to be seen as unifying as their predecessor, Jose Ramos-Horta.

For the criticism that could laid against Ramos-Horta, particularly for his policy on granting amnesties and hence, in some eyes, compromising notions of justice, he was consistent and driven by a public sense of forgiveness. This was, ultimately, a healing quality at a time when the nation needed to heal.

Such qualities may also reside in Lu-Olo and Ruak but, if they do, they are less evident, at least at this stage. 

Timor-Leste’s two previous presidents, Xanana Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, also stretched the limits of the constitution in regards to the president’s ‘competencies’. At a time when Timor-Leste is coming to terms with notions of rule of law, respecting the constitution’s limitations on the role of the president is critical.

Lu-Olo has not indicated that he would, if successful, be an activist president, although he has said he would like to see promoted policies that promote the welfare of the Timorese people. This is consistent with his position as the president of Fretilin and the party’s own policies on the subject.

Ruak has similarly not indicated that he would be an activist president, although some observers have taken his comments regarding conscription as indicating an activist intent.

Both men are, by people who know them, regarded as competent political and administrative actors. Neither, however, have the charisma of Jose Ramos-Horta or Xanana Gusmao.

The question will be, regardless of which of them wins the April presidential run-off, whether they can continue to preside over a consolidation of the peace and stability that has continued to mark Timor-Leste since 2008.  

F-FDTL 2006. Defence 2020: Strategic Blueprint: Development of the Armed Forces of Timor-Leste 2005-2020, Force 2020 Study Group, Falintil-FDTL, Ministry of Defence of Timor-Leste, 20 July 2006.

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