When East Timor’s outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, won office in 2007 by a crushing 69 per cent, many outsiders attributed the victory to his high profile as a campaigner for the country during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. There is no doubt that Ramos-Horta was well known and well liked within East Timor, as well as outside, but his first round vote was a more modest 21 per cent.
So, too, when Taur Matan Ruak stood for the presidency last month, he achieved a respectable but modest 26 per cent. On Monday, his voted jumped to just over 61 per cent. It was backing and organisation by Xanana Gusmao that elevated Ramos-Horta to his unassailable final position. It was Xanana Gusmao’s backing that also secured the Taur Matan Ruak’s victory over Fretilin candidate Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres.
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 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.