It took a while, but final results have now been announced from the first round of East Timor’s presidential election. Fretilin’s Francisco Guterres, who led with 27.9%, and second place-getter Jose Ramos-Horta (21.8%) will face each other in the second round on 8 May.

Since all the other major candidates were broadly anti-Fretilin, most of their support is now expected to flow to Ramos-Horta, making him the firm favourite.
As often happens in this sort of election (just as, for example, in France this Sunday), the real contest was for second place: Ramos-Horta beat the Democratic Party’s Ferdinand de Araujo by just 2.6%, or a little over 10,000 votes. Francisco Xavier do Amaral came fourth with 14.4%, and another four candidates had 16.7% between them.

This shows the main problem with two-round or runoff voting: it’s impossible to tell whether Ramos-Horta was really the most preferred candidate to take on Guterres. If preferences from other candidates were available to distribute, it’s possible that de Araujo or even do Amaral could have overtaken him. Preferential voting, of course, would also avoid the expense and inconvenience of going to the polls a second time.

The more interesting lesson of East Timor is the decline of a liberation movement that failed to adapt. In parliamentary elections in 2001, Fretilin won the expected landslide, with 57.4% — more than six times its nearest rival.

But it’s difficult for resistance fighters, used to being recognised as the legitimate representatives of their people just on the strength of the liberation struggle, to transform themselves into an ordinary political party in a multi-party system. Some of the worst were the two former Portuguese colonies where Marxist liberation movements came to power in the mid-1970s, Angola and Mozambique. Both tried to impose a one-party state, leading to civil war, terrorism and economic ruin.

Thirty years later, Fretilin was still stuck in something of the same intellectual time warp. But East Timor’s democracy, although battered, is still functioning; with any luck, Ramos-Horta will be able to win broad support, and the experience of democratic opposition will do Fretilin a lot of good.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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