As Timor-Leste’s political climate warms up ahead of next month’s presidential elections, many people are asking who is most likely to be elected president. In a country that does not have political polling, there are no obvious indications as to which candidates are most preferred by voters. But there are some indications of possible combinations, each of which could produce very different outcomes.
The vote from 2007 is seen by many as an indication to voting intentions in 2012 but, if so, it is no more than an indication. Since 2007, the political landscape has changed, which could affect how Timor-Leste’s citizens vote and how the candidates and parties align themselves.
In particular, there is anecdotal evidence that many of Timor-Leste’s are becoming more politically aware, or sceptical of politicians’ promises, and not as ‘rusted on’ to parties or individuals as they have been. This has potential to shift the political landscape in ways that are not currently anticipated by many observers or, indeed, by many political actors within Timor-Leste itself.
Contrary to politics elsewhere, Timor-Leste politicians are unusual in that they do not consider being seen as a leading candidate to be a problem. Indeed, they regularly overstate the extent of their personal or party popularity.
In many other places, it is more common to avoid such claims, for fear of a protest vote or voters believing that the candidate or party has too comfortable a lead and thus voting otherwise. Claiming a vote is close when it is not, or to be an underdog when is in a strong position, is common elsewhere. Not so, however, in Timor-Leste.
As a consequence, if the claims of all of the candidates to their level of success could be taken on face value, the total voter turn-out would have to very significantly exceed 100 per cent.
Of the fourteen candidates registered to contest the presidential election, there are four more clearly strong candidates, based on previous performance or other institutional standing, and a number whose chances of achieving office are less likely.
Of the four stronger candidates, two represents parties and two are standing as independents. Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres represents Fretilin while the Democratic Party’s candidate is Parliamentary President, Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araujo. Incumbent President Jose Ramos-Horta and former FDTL commander Jose Maria Vasconcelos (‘Taur Matan Ruak’) are both standing as independents.
Of the party candidates, based on Fretilin’s consolidated support base, Lu-Olo can be expected to retain most or all of the 28% he achieved in the first round of voting in 2007 and is hoping to improve on that percentage. Assuming Lu-Olo can make it through to the second round, Fretilin will be seeking support from minor parties. In particular, Fretilin will be looking to the ASDT, disaffected withits government alliance partner CNRT, but somewhat divided within itself. If ASDT moves towards Fretilin, this will put Lu-Olo in a stronger position in the second round than his 2007 final vote of just under 31%.
Lasama will similarly be hoping to retain the just over 19% of the vote he achieved in 2007, not least through his performance as Parliamentary President and, in 2008, as acting President. However, a division within PD, with a senior PD member running as an independent, could cap Lasama’s vote.
President Ramos-Horta won almost 22% of the vote in the first round in 2007, but with the support of CNRT and what has since become the Fretilin break-away group, Frenti Mudanca. Frenti Mudanca has nominated its own candidate, Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres, who, while having built the party since 2007, may struggle to command one of the top two positions in the 2012 first presidential round. So Ramos-Horta cannot expect support from that quarter, at least in the first round.
However, Ramos-Horta has had five years within which to consolidate his position as president and has not been tainted by some of the allegations that have been levelled at the government. To that end, he may well have built a support base that is now independent of the parties.
The other leading independent, Taur Matan Ruak, is well known and respected and since announcing his intention to run for the presidency has built a strong campaign team. Like, President Ramos-Horta, he would benefit considerably from party support.
Perhaps the main difference between 2007 and 2012 is that CNRT, as the main party of the AMP government, has had more than four years to consolidate itself as a political force. It has also benefited from the advantages of being in office, even if has also worn some of the attendant criticism.
CNRT believes that it will be able to build on the 24% of the vote it achieved in the 2007 parliamentary elections and its leader, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, has said that he wants CNRT to win sufficient votes to govern in its own right. More than doubling its vote does, however, seem ambitious and some form of coalition to form government seems more likely.
Importantly, however, CNRT has not put forward a party candidate for the position of president. At its recent congress, CNRT agreed to nominate support for an independent candidate. If CNRT supports President Ramos-Horta, other, smaller parties will probably fall in behind, especially if he makes it through to the second round.
However, it is at least equally likely that CNRT will instead support Taur Matan Ruak, which will put him in a very strong position to go into the second round. Alternatively, CNRT could decide not to formally endorse either candidate, but to allow (or suggest to) party members to informally support one or the other of the candidates.
Assuming that Lasama will do relatively well but not sufficiently so to be one of the top three candidates, PD’s support can be reasonably expected to go with that of CNRT. The question then is, of Lu-Olo, Ramos-Horta and Taur Matan Ruak, what are their possible configurations going into the second round.
If Taur Matan Ruak does not receive CNRT’s support and does not move into the second round, his own support – or that of his voter base - could be expected to go to Ramos-Horta, putting Ramos-Horta in a similar position to that of 2007, where in the second round he easily surpassed the 50% requirement to become president. Ramos-Horta’s vote may come down a little from the 2007 landslide of almost 70%, but it should be a comfortable margin none the less.
If, however, CNRT does opt to support Taur Matan Ruak, which seems to be increasingly possible, Ramos-Horta could struggle to go through to the second round. He may do so by squeezing ahead of Lu-Olo but, based on his 2007 figures, that would be less likely.
The question, then, will be if Ramos-Horta does not make it through to the second round, where will his support, or that of his voter base, go? On balance, if Ramos-Horta does not express a preference, most of his voter base would probably vote for Taur Matan Ruak, giving him a likely win over Lu-Olo.
However, Ramos-Horta has previously expressed his respect for Lu-Olo and regards him as a viable alternative president. Ramos-Horta’s relationship with Xanana Gusmao has also been tested, particularly over the latter part of his presidency, over reported comments about Gusmao’s public behaviour as well as Gusmao’s concern over Ramos-Horta stretching the constitutional limits of presidential authority.
If a third placed Ramos-Horta threw his support behind Lu-Olo, it is conceivable that Lu-Olo could receive sufficient support in the second round to become president. This would not necessarily have the direct implications for the parliamentary elections that the outcome of the 2007 presidential vote did, but it could means that, if CNRT was able to form a majority parliamentary alliance again, it could be faced with a less amenable president.
Less likely but still possible, Taur Matan Ruak could become president with Fretilin taking advantage of the difficulties faced by the current AMP government, assuming it does not win an absolute majority, to hive away sufficient support to form a majority alliance in parliament. The difficulty here will be that, apart from ASDT, its potential parliamentary partners might be too small to give it a majority alliance.
A third, even less likely outcome is that Ramos-Horta becomes president with a Fretilin alliance government.
Alliances and coalitions are, by nature, fractious and unreliable political formations, but it seems such an arrangement will be necessary to ensure sufficient voter support if each of the three main presidential candidates are to achieve office. The advantage here is that, once the president is elected, he (and it will very likely be a ‘he’) is not beholden to particular party interests, although historical relationships will count for much.
So, it may be possible to divine from the presidential electoral process not just, most obviously, the orientation of the new president but, importantly, what sort of alliances might be formed following the parliamentary elections. It is less clear, however, what their actual vote will be, particularly with some possible fluidity among non-Fretilin parties.
One point is now clear, though, with the precedent having been established in 2007, that parties will not have to commit to particular alliances or coalitions ahead of the elections in order to form government after them. They will, therefore, be able to retain, rhetorically at least, the aspiration of achieving a single party government.