On Sunday evening, 15 July 2012, a congress of CNRT party members in Dili voted to go into an alliance with the Democratic Party and Frenti Mudanca to form a new alliance to make up Timor-Leste’s Fifth Constitutional Government. In response, members of Fretilin rioted, burning more than 50 cars and stoning UN police sent to quell the trouble. While it seemed as though Timor-Leste was again reverting to its violent past, this was less a return to politics by fire and more the last gasp of an out of touch political leadership on the verge of become irrelevant.
It had always been expected that, should CNRT not achieve an absolute majority in its own right, that the Democratic Party would enter an alliance with it to form a majority. With Mudanca’s two seats, CNRT only needed one more seat to form a majority and PD’s eight seats took the new alliance well over the threshold 33 seats to a compelling 40 in the 65 seat parliament.
PD and Mudanca had been partners with CNRT in the previous government, with PSD-ASDT, so it seemed natural that the alliance continue. But PD and especially some of its senior figures had difficulty in their relations with CNRT’s leader, Xanana Gusmao, and were openly canvassing the possibility of breaking away from a CNRT alliance.
PD leader Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araujo had met with Xanana a little over two weeks before the 7 July elections and it was believed that the two had discussed the possibility of forming an alliance following those elections. No details were made available about the discussion, but it was later confirmed by a source close to the parties that a deal, in principle at least, had then been struck. One view was that Xanana had confirmed to Lasama that he would, at some future point, anoint Lasama as his successor. To do so, however, would be to step over the ambitions of his own party’s leaders and, of course, always remain subject to revision at some later date; nothing in politics is as guaranteed as facts on the ground. Political promises often mean very little.
It was instructive, too, that, having endorsed PD, former President, Jose Ramos-Horta, distanced himself from the party immediately after the meeting. His own plans, seemingly about trying to form an alliance between PD and ASDT, which he also supported, and thus creating a major third force in Timor-Leste politics, would not eventuate.
Although it was never explicitly articulated, it appeared that Horta’s plan was to help boost PD and ASDT’s vote, take them into an alliance with Fretilin but with the proviso that Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri would not pursue the prime ministership. As a ‘compromise candidate’ and enjoying majority parliamentary support, Horta would then offer himself for this role… or be ‘drafted’ into it by the overwhelming will of the people. Horta’s photograph on PD posters around Dili, with Lasama and Mariano ‘Asanami’ Sabino and his photo on ASDT posters with deceased leader Xavier do Amaral belied his intentions. But with PD doing a deal with Xanana, ASDT irretrievably split and its charismatic founding leader having died prior to the presidential elections, that party disappeared from the political stage. Horta, not a member of the party, was lined up with a person who was dead, both in a literal and figurative sense. By doing so, Horta had gone from being a rooster – a cock of the political walk, if not a fighting cock - to a feather duster, and his plans lay in ruins.
Yet while the deal between PD and CNRT was always expected, it was not as simple as a quick agreement. Post-election details needed to be sorted out. PD went into negotiations arguing that it did not want to see anyone who had opposed Timor-Leste’s independence appointed as a minister in the new government. This echoed an earlier call in the lead-up to the elections. PD also wanted a guaranteed number of ministries for its senior members, with the Social Solidarity and Finance Ministries both in its sights.
Keen to pressure Xanana, the Dili rumor-mill spun furiously as a Fretilin-PD deal was speculated upon. Yet had PD attempted such a move, its own voter base would have deserted it and the party would have split. Xanana could have simply approached disaffected PD members and invited them to join, or vote for, his government, which a few would probably have done. In terms of brinksmanship, Lasama had more to lose than Xanana.
For his own part, Xanana did not say in public what he wanted, but it was understood that the possibility of corruption investigations into to some senior PD members weighed upon his deliberations. As a more conventional part of deal making, he would also have been looking for a senior posting for his Mudanca colleague, Jose Luis Guterres. Who was to become president of the parliament, who was to be deputy prime minister and who was to become foreign minister were all matters that would be thrown into the negotiating mix.
Yet in the background, Horta called for a ‘government of national unity’, to include Fretilin with CNRT. Seizing on this, Fretilin’s Mari Alkatiri and Lu-Olo similarly called for a government of national unity, telling Fretilin members: ‘Fretilin will indeed (join) this government… CNRT won more, but Fretilin will participate in this government.’ Alkatiri said: ‘Fretilin will participate in the governance from 2012 to 2017 so no need to be upset and concerned at the election result.’
These were ill-informed comments, failing to reflect the political reality that Fretilin opposed CNRT’s Strategic Development Plan and that the two parties were at loggerheads over how to use the Petroleum Fund. Beyond this, Xanana could only ever have contemplated an alliance with Fretilin if the party abandoned its leaders, or they fell on their respective swords. But for a party in which its abrupt and somewhat overbearing leadership style appeared to be in the process of being transferred to its second generation, it was likely that Fretilin’s leadership changes would have to be wholesale for a deal to be done, which was never likely. So, despite Xanana saying that CNRT had three options for the future, an alliance with Fretilin was only ever an option in a theoretical sense.
Unfortunately, however, Alkatiri and Lu-Olo’s comments raised hopes among many Fretilin members that they would be returned from the political cold and again be able to bask in the glow of power. Fuel was added to this fire through the live broadcast of the CNRT conferenence, which formally made the decision on the alliance and which was fairly blunt in its rejection of some form of association with Fretilin. When the result on the alliance was announced, therefore, Fretilin supporters, angered and disappointed, rioted. It was a last ill-conceived hurrah for two leaders who were mortally politically wounded, seeking to have a final go-around before being venturing, voluntarily or otherwise, into that long walk into the wilderness of post-political irrelevance.
For the rest of Timor-Leste, it was to be, more or less, business as usual; managing an economy with little understanding of how economies work, trying to push past the bottleneck of Dili-centric development and the expense of the underfunded rural areas, tackling corruption while also, if unwittingly, feeding into it but, most importantly and despite the blip on the violence radar and after a history of violence of mythic proportions, another five years across Timor-Leste of relative peace and stability.