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Ramos-Horta to stand again for Timor-Leste's presidency - but with party support?

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The announcement by President Jose Ramos-Horta that he will seek re-election for a second term in office has thrown open Timor-Leste’s presidential race, all but guaranteeing that the process will now run to a second round of voting. Although Ramos-Horta’s candidacy adds another strong contender to the presidential stakes, added to two other strong contenders and what will probably be a list of around a dozen less likely candidates, it now seems unlikely that any one candidate will receive the requisite 50%+1 in order to win the presidency in the first round. President Ramos-Horta announced his decision to run again for the presidency after receiving a petition signed by more than 116,000 East Timorese asking him to stand again for the office. He had been considering whether or not to run again throughout 2011 and had at times said that he would both run and not run again. In part, his deliberations on the presidency were informed by the need for the political process to be handed over to other, capable candidates, to help ensure there was a broader range of political voices. In part, too, having represented Timor-Leste to the international community for decades and then been its Foreign Minister, briefly Prime Minister and then President, he had more than fulfilled his role to the nation. After being shot and critically wounded in 2008, there were also moments of personal reflection, as well as physical recovery. However, Ramos-Horta has recovered remarkably well from that water-shed event, which marked the end of the 2006-7 political violence in Timor-Leste and ushered in a new period of a return to something approaching normality. The real question in the presidential race will be how Timor-Leste’s multiple political parties align themselves with candidates and whether the two leading independent candidates, Ramos-Horta and Taur Matan Ruak, receive backing from a major party, such as CNRT. This will in turn depend on the status of the relationship between the candidates and the party, in particular with its founder and leader, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. President Ramos-Horta’s relationship with Gusmao has been tested over the past year, with revelations that the President had made unflattering comments about the Prime Minister’s drinking habits. The two have also had their relationship tested by Ramos-Horta’s perceived initial consideration of an Australian asylum-seeker processing centre on Timor-Leste and his active interest in the Timor Sea/Woodside issue, both of which stretched the bounds of the president’s constitutional authority. However, the two have otherwise been close political colleagues over decades and have had a good personal and working relationship. Gusmao has, however, also retained a very good relationship with Taur Matan Ruak, who was his 2IC as commander of Falintil. The difficulty, therefore, will be given that both candidates are formally ‘independent’ and neither represents a specific party as does, for example, Lu-Olo with Fretilin, how Gusmao and CNRT will choose between them or, indeed, if it does. It is possible, of course, that Gusmao and CNRT will not support either candidate for the presidency. But that would leave the presidential race wide open, with both Ramos-Horta and Ruak less beholden to a party that may seek to form a new government and potentially more problematic to that process because of it. Of course, this would not matter if neither candidate was successful in their bid for the presidency. But given that both are strong candidates, it is unlikely that Timor-Leste’s senior political actors would want to leave a more successful outcome – and its implications for presidential-government relation - entirely to chance.

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