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Gusmao victory consolidates democracy in Timor-Leste

The results of the parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste on Saturday have resulted in two outcomes: a major boost in the vote for CNRT, the party of prime minister Xanana Gusmao, from 24% to 36% of the total vote; and more importantly, the consolidation of the democratic process in Timor-Leste just 10 years after achieving independence.

After changing government in 2007, the people of Timor-Leste have again voted strategically to focus their vote on the major parties, with CNRT taking much of the vote away from the many smaller parties, which tended to reflect personalities rather than policies or party positions.

CNRT will probably form government with one or possible two coalition partners. Of the 21 parties that contested the poll, 17 now appear to have missed the cut-off threshold of 3%, leaving just four, possibly five, represented in the parliament.

CNRT’s 36% will translate into 30 or 31 seats in the 65-seat parliament, with the closely aligned Frenti Mudanca taking two seats to provide a majority or very close to it between them. The Democratic Party was also expected to reach an accommodation with CNRT, with its further eight seats providing a strong and stable coalition.

The former party of government, Fretilin, will take 24 or 25 seats, likely forming the opposition. After losing half its vote in the 2007 elections and showing no effective gains five years later, the question is whether it will now reflect on its options for the future.

Fretilin leader Mari Alkitiri may now be reconsidering whether he wishes to remain as party leader. Even if he does not, some Fretilin members may also be considering a future for the party without Alkatiri and whether they can build beyond its seemingly static 30% status.

The elections were run smoothly, if not flawlessly, and the conduct of the elections was marred only by minor technical issues. The polls were well attended, with 73% of registered voters attending. Due to anomalies on the registration system, it is estimated the real voter turnout rate was above 80%.

What now looks to be a pattern in Timor-Leste’s politics is, in difficult conditions, the commitment of voters to the electoral process. Equally, what increasingly appears clear is that the voters here will shift their vote based on who they think best represents their interests, as opposed to some blind tribal loyalty.

This careful recalibration of the vote reflects a clear consideration of political interest. The past five years have seen the resolution of several of Timor-Leste’s immediate problems and some significant achievements by the government. But, as 2007 showed, they are prepared to change their vote depending on performance,

Should a new CNRT les government not perform, there is not guarantee than it would not be dumped at the 2017 election. This is made all the more possible by the likely leadership changes that are now expected in Fretilin.

In the interim, the in-coming government will need to tackle significant problems. The first issue to address is corruption, which has blossomed in recent years, especially in the non-transparent letting of major government contracts. Four ministers are currently under investigation for corruption and are not likely to be included in a new government.

The sustainable use of Timor-Leste’s $11 billion petroleum fund, the interest from which runs the government and, by extension, most of the economy is perhaps just as important. The government has been using capital from the petroleum fund, saying it urgently needs to build infrastructure. Bit at the current rate of depletion, Timor-Leste will be out of money in a little over a decade.

Related to this, the government needs to resolve its outstanding dispute with Woodside Petroleum over the development of the Greater Sunrise natural gas field in the Timor Sea. If resolved, this will pump several billion dollars more into the petroleum fund. However, disagreements between the two parties over the location of a LNG processing plant has stopped the project proceeding, auguring poorly for the project’s future.

Finally, while there has been much development in Timor-Leste since independence, little has changed for many people outside Dili. Increasing rural development is critical if the majority of Timor-Leste’s people are to be lifted out of grinding poverty.

If these issues are not addressed, the current stability that Timor-Leste has begun to enjoy may not last. A corrupt government that does not look after the needs of its people will engender serious discontent. If Xanana Gusmao is returned as prime minister, as expected, he will need to now lift his — and the government’s game — or else see his legacy trashed as with so many other once-promising leaders of post-colonial, post-conflict countries.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights and worked with the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network Election Observer Mission

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