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First (verbal) shots fired ahead of Timor-Leste’s presidential elections

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The first (verbal) shots have been fired in Timor-Leste’s presidential elections, scheduled for 17 March. Among the announced candidates for the election are Fretilin’s president, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and former commander of Timor-Leste’s armed forces (F-FDTL), Jose Maria Vasconcelos, better known as ‘Taur Matan Ruak’. Current president Jose Ramos-Horta has said he will announce whether he will stand for a second term as president in early February. The Timor-Leste presidency is, according to the constitution, a largely ceremonial position. However, Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao before him have tested the constitutional limits of the office. In a speech to Fretilin village chiefs in Baucau recently, Taur Matan Ruak spoke strongly in favour of his candidacy for the presidency. Fretilin, he said, had not governed well as the first post-independence government. Ruak was quoted by Alex Tilman, in his blog, as saying: ‘Today my words have been a little heated, and that’s for Bucoli to hear, for Fretilin to hear, so I don't need to go around boasting about myself. If I boasted myself, what comes next will be like a cannon. It destroys mountains. Be careful. Today I am only letting out bullet by bullet. What comes next is a cannon’. Ruak described Lu-Olo as a ‘younger brother’ and that his time as president would come later. According to Tilman, Ruak indicated that, by standing as candidate, Lu-Olo might have breached a ‘sacred’ trust, forged during the resistance when Ruak was Lu-Olo’s commander. While swearing to respect hierarchy in within a military context, such criteria is no longer relevant in post-military life. Moreover, while notions of the ‘sacred’ are important to most East Timorese, this is a good example of where spiritual matters should not be confused with the temporal world. The public sphere, such as the candidacy for the presidency, can only be rationally judged on who is the best person for the position and what policies they bring to it. To that end, what we have not yet heard the candidates discuss policy. While most public policy is within the realm of the government, which sits in parliament, the president does have some discretionary powers, the views on which would be useful to have clarified. For example, it would be useful to know what the candidates’ positions are on the issue of Section 106 (1) of the Constitution, concerning the appointment of a minority government or an alliance formed after the election? This was a matter of controversy following the last parliamentary elections and the candidates should announce, prior to the presidential election, their positions on this critical issue. Similarly, the issue of presidential pardons for convicted criminals has been controversial, if well within the constitutional powers of the president. What are the candidates’ positions on this issue? There is some ambiguity in the constitution around the role of the president in relation to the armed forces, noting that the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces but that the chief of staff of the armed forces should be appointed following consultation with the government. The question arises, then, as to whether the candidates believe the president has active executive authority over the defence forces? Similarly, the question also arises as to what is the position of the candidates on the role of the defence forces in internal security? Moving away from the defence forces, is there any particular type of legislation passed by a majority of the parliament that candidates would veto? This could be particularly important if the president and the government had different ideas on, for example, budgetary or other financial processes. As Timor-Leste’s political system matures and develops, these types of issues will increasingly be discussed by voters, observers and, perhaps, even presidential candidates. How the candidates choose to position themselves on these and other issues should, in the end, be the criteria upon which the citizens of Timor-Leste vote.

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