The various contenders for Timor-Leste’s presidency in the 17 March election have begun to try to persuade the voting public why they should be elected as president. A number of candidates have said that, if elected, they will institute particular changes or reforms. These promises appear, however, to misunderstand the role of Timor-Leste’s president.
In short, the role of the president in Timor-Leste is, with few exceptions, a ceremonial one. Apart from a few carefully circumscribed areas, Timor-Leste’s president does not have an executive function.
Presidential candidates who announce that, if elected, they will institute particular changes therefore appear to be unaware of the constitutional role of the president. It is either that, or that they wish to change the constitution and give Timor-Leste a different type of political system.
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.
As the rhetoric heats up ahead of Timor-Leste’s official campaigning period for the forthcoming presidential elections, there is considerable interest in how the political process will unfold in 2012. There are a range of possibilities, but some possible outcomes do seem more likely than others.
The big question is whether Timor-Leste voters are likely to show the voting discipline they did in the three rounds of elections in 2007. In those contests, the vote for the first presidential round was very closely reflected in the second round, with the minor parties but one throwing their support behind Rose Ramos-Horta, who was elected in the second round with an overwhelming majority of just under 70 per cent. Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, increased his vote from just under 30 per cent to just over 30 per cent, reflecting the addition of the support of a further, minor party.
The first (verbal) shots have been fired in Timor-Leste’s presidential elections, scheduled for 17 March. Among the announced candidates for the election are Fretilin’s president, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and former commander of Timor-Leste’s armed forces (F-FDTL), Jose Maria Vasconcelos, better known as ‘Taur Matan Ruak’. Current president Jose Ramos-Horta has said he will announce whether he will stand for a second term as president in early February. The Timor-Leste presidency is, according to the constitution, a largely ceremonial position. However, Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao before him have tested the constitutional limits of the office. In a speech to Fretilin village chiefs in Baucau recently, Taur Matan Ruak spoke strongly in favour of his candidacy for the presidency. Fretilin, he said, had not governed well as the first post-independence government.
The handing down of a ‘not guilty’ verdict on sodomy charges against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim indicates a tectonic shift in Malaysian politics. Following a previous overturned conviction on a related charge, the immediate outcome of Anwar’s judicial decision is significant, but its longer term implications could be profound.
In a country in which the judiciary has been used as a political tool since the late 1980s, the ‘not guilty’ decision by Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah went against expectations, even by Ibahim himself. Although the decision was widely viewed as a vindication of Anwar, it also reflects a possible break in political interference in the judiciary and, in turn, a relative weakening of what was a high level of central political control.
In early October, Aceh will hold its second gubanatorial elections since the 2005 peace agreement that ended almost three decades of separatist war. After five years of relative peace and stability, the main political tensions appear to be between competing factions of the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Other, more troubling tensions are, however, just below the surface.
There is little to divide the main factions competing in the elections. The incumbent governor, Irwandi Yusuf, has overseen the development of a universal health care system, expanded education, overseen underlying economic growth and banned logging in Aceh’s spectacular rainforest.
His main electoral opponent, GAM’s former ‘Foreign Minister’, Dr Zaini Abdullah, also supports such programs. Apart from personalities, the division between them might be characterised as one of the latter being more conservative and the former more progressive.
In a short couple of months, Aceh will again go to the polls to elect a governor and vice-governor, bupatis and local representatives. The election will mark a consolidation of the democratic process in Aceh, introduced as a result of the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement.
Even though the campaign period for the elections has not yet formally started, there is great interest in who will run, what they stand for and what their chances of success might be. It is healthy that people take an active interest in the political life of their community, as the political process determines how the people of the community are to live, within the constraints imposed by their circumstances.
That the political environment in Aceh has remained more or less peaceful since 2005 represents a victory for the idea of democratic, representative government. The electoral process itself represents a victory for accountability, which is the opposite of the imposed rule that Aceh once experienced.
My son turned 18 recently, so he was eligible to vote for the first time. Although it is tempting to encourage one’s children to vote as one does, I have hoped he will vote not at my suggestion but as a matter of personal conscience. Yesterday, before he went to the polling booths, I offered him some advice.
Despite the way in which Australian election campaigns are conducted, the most recent being the worst example, I asked my son to consider the ‘Four Ps’; principle, policy, party and personality, in that order. It would be reasonable to argue that the Australian election process, which is now in mopping up stages, was constructed in the opposite order. So, why my advice?