In a country in which there are no public opinion surveys and in which the still developing media could not be said to reflect, much less shape, the views of most people, trying to understand why the people of Timor-Leste vote as they do was not an exact science. Such judgments that could be made were only on the basis of anecdotal evidence set against what is known about Timor-Leste’s history and some conventional theories about politics.
The conventional Western view about politics is that it is conducted along a left-right axis, representing political parties and ideologies that are more or less in favour of central capital accumulation and distribution. Parties that tend to favour centralised capital accumulation and distribution are along the left of the spectrum, while partiers that favour less centralised capital accumulation in favour of private retention tend to be along the right of the spectrum. This classic left-right divide characterises, for example, conventional socialist or social-democratic parties as on the left and free market parties as on the right.
This characterisation was particularly relevant to industrial societies in which there was fairly pronounced horizontal differentiation or class interest, even if it has started to break down in what some analysts refer to as post-industrial society. However, in societies that have not yet industrialised and which retain significant vestiges of traditional social organisation, such as Timor-Leste, a left-right distinction can have less relevance.
Based on the original CNRT’s ‘magna carta’ that had brought together all of Timor-Leste’s pro-independence parties into a grand coalition ahead of the 1999 ballot, most of Timor-Leste’s parties, including all of the major ones, retained a strong government-led, social-democratic focus. There were differences, in particular between CNT and Fretilin, over the use of capital from the Petroleum Fund and the wisdom or otherwise of government borrowing, but their policies were otherwise fairly much the same.
The question was, then, what differentiated the parties in the eyes of voters? In particular, what contributed to Fretilin’s relatively static vote of around 30 per cent, while CNRT’s vote jumped by 50 per cent between 2007 and 2012?
While understanding politics along a left-right spectrum is helpful, particularly where policies are clearly differentiated, it is less helpful in pre or non-industrial societies in which parties have similar policies or, as is sometimes the case, few or no policies. There are two further criteria that help clarify why Timor-Leste’s voters choose as they do.
The first criterion is that related to a left-right political axis, there is also an authoritarian-libertarian axis that does not run parallel to but rather cuts across the left-right axis. That is, parties may be on the left but may have greater or lesser authoritarian or libertarian tendencies, or they may be on the right but again be differentiated by their authoritarian or libertarian responses.
Other than in circumstances of high levels of social disorder or external threat, which given the choice, most people tend to prefer more liberal (tending towards libertarian) political rule rather than authoritarian forms of government. After Portugal’s authoritarian and sometimes brutal colonialism and Indonesia’s repressive and bloody occupation, most Timorese seemed to want the political space afforded by more liberal political responses.
In this regard, Fretilin increasingly characterised itself as having left-leaning policies but a tendency towards authoritarian responses. One could trace this political style to the development of the party within Timor-Leste in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as it became more doctrinaire in its ideological outlook. One could also see elements of old Soviet style political organisation, borrowed from countries, such as Mozambique, that had housed the party’s exiled leadership during the Indonesian occupation.
This relatively high level of political organisation, coupled with limited tolerance for dissenting views, appeared to have spread beyond the leadership and older guard of Fretilin and had become something of a leitmotif within the party among its younger political leaders. While nothing is permanent in politics, it did appear as though Fretilin had embedded this particular political style.
Within Fretilin as an organisation, this style provided a sense of order and discipline and, along with a rusted-on base which had benefited from Fretilin’s period in power, assured it of a solid and fairly consistent core of voters. However, with most Timorese yearning for greater political openness, this more authoritarian style quickly became an anathema. Political parties offering greater tolerance quickly moved to the fore.
Because of a lack of class coherence in Timor-Leste, reflecting its lack of industrialisation, less authoritarian political parties cohered around individuals or regional groupings. In this, more traditional or charismatic forms of political leadership play an important role. Xavier do Amaral clearly reflected a traditional leadership appeal as the head of ASDT. PD’s Lasama could also be said to reflect, if not traditional or inherited leadership then at least a strong regional identification in an area that to some extent overlapped with ASDT’s traditional base, to the south and west of Dili, and which was reflected in the extent of PD’s vote in both the first presidential and the parliamentary elections.
It was notable, too, that while Fretlin’s lead candidates, Alkatiri and Lu-Olo, were primarily presented in public wearing modernist Western suits, many other candidates opted for pre-colonial, traditional chiefly attire, reflecting their respective political styles.
Importantly, however, and related to the perceived orientation of the parties, the style of political leadership also appeared to play a significant role in the elections’ outcome. In short, Xanana Gusmao continued to reflect a high level of charismatic authority and, to the extent that it was perceived, was understood as someone who listened and was to a relatively high degree at one with the people. That he had also presided over relative peace and stability, along with some real economic benefits, consolidated support for him and, by extension, for the party that he led.
By way of contrast, Alkatiri continued to be seen by many Timorese as cold and aloof, to have little sense of connection with the ordinary lives of Timorese and to eschew many of those traditional qualities to which many Timorese still gravitated. Alkatiri’s somewhat brittle political style was reflected in what was perceived to be Fretilin’s relatively rigid and relatively authoritarian political methods. Many Timorese had their own stories of how they had been alienated by Fretilin, but each appeared to reflect being rubbed the wrong way by the party’s heavy handedness, from their memory of its time in government and its responses to the social upheavals between 2003 and 2007 to Fretilin’s sometimes intimidating campaigning style to its checking voters as they left voting stations and, as an epilogue gesture, the rioting by its members when it was announced that it would not be included in government.
This is not to suggest that the other political parties were saintly or that, had the vote gone the other way that the responses might not have been different. But it is to say that if, in the minds of many voters, Fretilin was cast in a negative light, it only reinforced that perception with its continuing blunt and often aggressive responses.
In short, then, the outcome of the vote can be explained by these factors; that Fretilin had in effect locked in 30 per cent of the vote but that it continued to almost structurally exclude most of the rest. By way of contrast, the more open and embracing political style of the other parties that achieved seats in parliament, in particular that of CNRT, ensured that its vote was not only secured but significantly grew. The party only needed to be able to transfer that public perception to a new generation of leaders to retain a strong position in Timor-Leste’s body politic even after its founder, Xanana Gusmao, had moved on.