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Patterns in Timor-Leste voting: voter discipline and political outcomes

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As the rhetoric heats up ahead of Timor-Leste’s official campaigning period for the forthcoming presidential elections, there is considerable interest in how the political process will unfold in 2012. There are a range of possibilities, but some possible outcomes do seem more likely than others.
The big question is whether Timor-Leste voters are likely to show the voting discipline they did in the three rounds of elections in 2007. In those contests, the vote for the first presidential round was very closely reflected in the second round, with the minor parties but one throwing their support behind Rose Ramos-Horta, who was elected in the second round with an overwhelming majority of just under 70 per cent. Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, increased his vote from just under 30 per cent to just over 30 per cent, reflecting the addition of the support of a further, minor party.
There was similar voter discipline in the following parliamentary elections, with the proportion of votes closely following that of the first round of the presidential elections, but for the reduction in the vote for the Democratic Party from its stronger presidential showing. The difference here was, again, reflected in minor party support being hived off for the parliamentary contest.
IN part, the consistency of the 2007 vote reflected the partisan political climate at the time, the tendency towards ethno-political loyalties and the influence of patron-client politics.
In this respect, 2007 showed a great deal of voter consistency. It was, however a very different vote to that of 2002, in which Fretilin had won 57.4 per cent of the vote. In the intervening five years there had been a massive shift of political support away from Fretilin. This showed that while party loyalty was strong in 2007, it was not necessarily a permanent feature of the political landscape and that loyalties were prone to being shifted.
One thing that was noticeable, both in the 2002 and 2007 elections, was that the rhetoric of parties and candidates was rarely matched by the subsequent reality. Claims of major forthcoming victories were usually not matched by results, whereas those few who made modest or no claims about outcomes tended to as modestly as they had suggested or slightly better.
Interestingly, unlike more established democracies in which politicians are careful not to be seen to be boasting or claiming an unassailable lead for fear of a ‘protest’ vote, Timor-Leste’s politicians appear to think that stronger the claims to political success the more likely they will eventuate.
Fretilin underperformed measured against its rhetoric in 2002 and Fretilin, CNRT and PD all underperformed when measured against their rhetoric in 2007, as did a number of minor parties. There were similar rumblings as the various contenders started to shape up for the 2012 electoral season, although again it seemed that political optimism was not likely to be rewarded to the extent it seemed to think was warranted.
CNRT stood to be the biggest winner in 2012, at least in terms of potential for gains. It had presided over five years of increasing stability, statistical economic growth if marginal actual improvement in the lives of many in the districts, the roll-out of electrification as an impressive infrastructure project that promised to transform the lives of most, and five years of increased patronage under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao who, while tarnished from the wear and tear of political life, still managed to retain a relatively high degree of personal popularity.
In 2007, Fretilin’s presidential candidate was Lu-Olo, and he was pre-selected again for 2012. Without predicting what Fretilin’s level of voter support was likely to be, he could reasonable expect to have all of that and perhaps the support of a minor party or parties. Indeed, Unless Fretilin was to completely reverse is 2007 election performance on its own, it would have been likely to be looking for political allies to team up with, to support Lu-Olo and to present an alliance on the floor of the parliament.
CNRT had supported Ramos-Horta for the presidency in 2007, which he subsequently won. In 2012, CNRT’s support was much less clear but started to look like veering away from Ramos-Horta, with whom Prime Minister Gusmao seemed increasingly uncomfortable, and towards former commander of the defence forces, Taur Matan Ruak.
If Ramos-Horta decided to contest the 2012 presidential election and if he did not retain CNRT’s support, he would be likely to retain a degree of personal following among voters but perhaps not as much as if he had CNRT’s endorsement. This would have looked like dividing the vote to the extent that no single candidate would receive more than 50 per cent support in the first presidential round. The vote would be for the two highest voted candidates in a second round.
If Ramos-Horta did, however, decide not to contest the 2012 presidential elections, it could have been possible that another candidate could win an absolute majority in the first round. This would have remained difficult, given the plethora of minor candidates, but it would have been much more possible than had Ramos-Horta remained in the race.
Ramos-Horta had been ambiguous about his political future, indicating back and forth that he would or would not seek re-election. He remained an important political force in Timor-Leste but, equally, remained a valuable public, if no longer official, face of Timor-Leste on the world stage.
The questions, then, were who would be likely serious contenders for the 2012 presidential elections, how the balance of support from political parties would play out and whether voters followed their parties’ directions as closely as in 2007. If they did not, this would have reflected a fundamental change in the ways Timor-Leste’s voters decided on political issues. It would have thus thrown the political game wide open.
If they did follow party directions, however, the outcome of the first round of the presidential elections would then made it possible to start to predict the shape of political outcomes in the parliamentary elections.

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