East Timor’s Prime Minister and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, has announced his intention to retire from politics. Two East Timor media sources say Gusmao will retire in 2015, two years before the conclusion of the current Parliament, with another source saying he will leave in 2017.
Gusmao, 67, will make way for a new generation of political leadership within his own party, the Timorese Council for National Reconstruction (CNRT). His departure from politics may also signal a more broad generational change in East Timorese politics.
Former prime minister and current Opposition Leader Mari Alkatiri was also expected to retire ahead of the 2017 elections, paving the way for a new generation of leadership to come forward on both sides of politics.
There is, however, concern as to whether the still fragile country will be able to sustain a coalition government under a less charismatic and less widely respected leader. The current governing coalition is comprised of three parties, led by CNRT and dominated by Gusmao.
Gusmao has had health issues in recent times, in particular a back problem that has caused him to seek treatment overseas and that continues to plague him.
No successor to Gusmao has been announced, but a likely candidate is the CNRT’s general secretary and Justice Minister, Dionisio Babo Soares. Soares has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University and a degree in constitutional law from Udayana University in Bali.
Another possible successor is Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers and trusted Gusmao adviser Agio Pereira, who spent much of the Indonesian occupation in Australia, where he was a conduit for Gusmao’s external relations.
Gusmao rose to power during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Following a series of serious setbacks to the resistance (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin) and as the only surviving member of Fretilin’s central committee, in 1981 Gusmao was elected to the leadership of the resistance.
By the mid-1980s, Gusmao reconsidered the appropriateness of Fretilin’s hard ideological line, leading in 1987-88 to his decision to leave Fretilin and remove the guerrilla army from control of the party. He then set about establishing a broad pro-independence movement and building international support. It was the 1987-88 division that has continued to mark the key ideological division within East Timorese politics.
Gusmao was captured by Indonesian troops in 1992, but he continued to lead the resistance from prison in Jakarta, being released following East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999.
In terms of post-independence national leadership, Gusmao has held the fragile state together in a way that his predecessor, Mari Alkatiri, could not. The stability that currently marks East Timor’s social and political life can be traced to Gusmao taking the prime ministership in 2007, following its near collapse in 2006.
Following Gusmao’s departure in 2015, there will be a question as to whether East Timor’s still-fragile politics will continue to cohere around two general political blocs, or whether it will fragment into less stable coalitions.
There is also a question of the country’s continuing financial viability, which, on current planned spending, is expected to run into financial problems in around 15 years, or sooner if spending stays at current levels.
Gusmao’s departure will come at a time when East Timor faces a new set of critical challenges — reducing economic capacity, a growing population entering the very limited employment market and a potential lack of unifying leadership.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He is author of East Timor: The Price of Liberty.