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Political 'Neutrality' in Timor-Leste

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As Timor-Leste heads towards the second round of the Presidential elections, many are wondering who, ultimately, will become the new figurehead leader of the nation. While the role of the president is largely ceremonial, it does have some important powers, its symbolism is an important unifier in a country still developing a coherent national identity, and how votes are allocated will start to identify the shape of the next parliamentary government.
Importantly, while in the 2007 elections there was a backlash against the incumbent Fretilin government and the second round of presidential voting saw the formation of two clear blocs, the 2012 elections are more ambiguous. In particular, the announcement by the out-going President, Jose Ramos-Horta, and the Democratic Party (PD), that they would remain neutral and not allocate preferences in the second presidential round, has increased the sense of uncertainty as to its outcome.
In short, with Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres having almost 29 per cent of the vote and nominal independent Taur Matan Ruak on almost 26 per cent, the question is whether Lu-Olo can extend his lead to become the next president, or whether TMR can close the gap and pass Lu-Olo by attracting uncommitted voters.
Up for grabs are unsuccessful candidates Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araujo’s 17.3 per cent of votes and the 17.5 per cent won by Ramos-Horta. Beyond these two, there will still be 10.75 per cent of the vote to be allocated, previously distributed between nine other candidates which, if the final vote is very close, could be the deciding factor in the outcome. This will be an election, more so than many others, in which every vote will count.
Of the most important minor blocs of votes, the 3.5 per cent allocated to Rogerio Lobato is the most important, with Jose Luis Guterres 2 per cent also being a factor, followed by Manuel Tilman and Abilio de Araujo on 1.56 and 1.35 per cent respectively. Rogerio Lobato and Manuel Tilman have allocated their support to Lu-Olo and, assuming it flows as directed, that will bring Luo-Olo to around 34 per cent of the vote.
Jose Luis Guterres may also allocate his vote to Lu-Olo but, given that he left Fretilin in difficult circumstances over four years ago, it is more likely that his vote will flow to TMR, bringing him to around 28 per cent. Abilio de Araujo’s vote is, at this stage, more difficult to determine, given he is a former president of Fretilin but has since opted for a very different position. Adding most of his vote to TMR would bring him closer to 30 per cent. That leaves around 35 per cent of the vote – approximately that of Lasama and Ramos-Horta, to determine the outcome.
If their vote was evenly divided, Lu-Olo would be elected with a comfortable majority of between 51 and 53 per cent of the vote, with TMR achieving a respectable but insufficient 47 – 49 per cent of the vote. However, the question arises as to what Lasama and Ramos-Horta’s motives are as part of their parliamentary strategy and the extent to which being ‘neutral’ allows their supporters to vote in a way that identifies their underlying inclinations.
As with 2007, it seems that rather than make explicit PD’s support early on as part of an arrangement for a formal coalition or alliance, Lasama is counting on establishing a bargaining position with Fretilin and Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT. In 2007, this strategy was not especially successful, given that Lasama’s personal vote was much stronger than that of PD in the parliamentary elections and his bargaining power subsequently declined.
However, PD may be counting on a stronger vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections particularly, if the reports are accurate, PD is able to attract the support of Ramos-Horta. This could make PD the party that determines which of Fretilin or CNRT forms the next government. Staying neutral in the second presidential electoral round simply allows them the opportunity to determine which way the political wind is blowing before making such a decision.
In terms of how Ramos-Horta’s supporters are likely to vote, they will probably be fairly evenly divided between Lu-Olo and TMR, with perhaps a drift towards TMR. Ramos-Horta did poorly in the traditionally stronger Fretilin areas in the east, so there is likely to be little meaningful vote transfer there. Interestingly, though, the traditional Fretilin stronghold of Baucau came much closer to dividing its vote between Lu-Olo and TMR, probably due to TMR’s personal links to the area. However, this weakens a previously key Fretilin stronghold.
Ramos-Horta’s main support base was in Ermera, Aileu and then Dili. Aileu is likely to divide more evenly, but Dili is a less strong Fretilin base, while Ermera also tends to trend against Fretilin. The difference in general voting preferences in these areas might be enough to close most of the gap between between TMR and Lu-Olo.
Ainaro, Liquica, Bobonaro and Oecusse not only showed a plurality of support for Lasama but, on balance, also showed a much lower preference for Lu-Olo. The indication from these districts, then, is that they will tend to vote away from Lu-Olo. This will be where, it seems, the election will be won and lost.
As the American baseball player Yogi Berrer once said: ‘It is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.’ So it is best left to the people of Timor-Leste to work out which candidate they will provide majority support for, rather than try to identify that in advance.
But one thing looks clear. The thumping presidential victory that Ramos-Horta enjoyed in 2007 is very unlikely to be repeated by either candidate in 2012.

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