Polls are open for the first round of the presidential election in East Timor (Timor-Leste).
East Timor’s presidency is not very powerful. The system is quite similar in its formal powers to that of the country whose colony the country once was, Portugal. It is premier-presidential, which is to say that the more powerful executive posts are those of the premier and cabinet who must maintain confidence of the parliamentary majority. Even within this category, the system clearly leans parliamentary. The presidency may be more than a figurehead, but not much.
Since independence, the presidency has been held by one of the country’s most popular leaders of the independence struggle, Xanana Gusmao, who is not running in this election. Gusmao governed as an independent, facing a parliament–and thus premiers–controlled by the country’s only major political party to date, Fretilin, the former guerrilla movement that led the fight against the Indonesian occupation. (Indonesia’s military invaded the territory almost immediately after Portugal withdrew in 1975.)
East Timor is one of those countries that perhaps could benefit from a more powerful presidency. The Fretilin has been so dominant in parliament that there is hardly any effective opposition in that body. Thus the political opposition has been led by the popular president, but he has little power to be effective in resisting the government and parliament. And, with the president being personally popular, most voters presumably do not understand why he is unable to be more effective at representing them.
In this election, it is not clear who might win, with eight candidates, three of them given decent chances (see the BBC link above). One of the leading candidates is the current Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of Fretilin. He is now following in the footsteps of Xanana, running as the anti-Fretilin independent. Meanwhile, Xanana is positioning himself to take up the post of Prime Minister if his supporters can do well in parliamentary elections later this year.
So, this year’s elections could see a game of musical chairs, with the current incumbents exchanging positions. If Xanana can break the dominance of Fretilin, East Timor might even have effective two-party or multiparty politics in parliament, even while it would continue to have an independent politician heading a weak presidency.
Thanks to Alan for the prompt to post this and to Nicole A. (student in my Institutional Engineering course last year), whose paper and presentation are the source of much of what I know about East Timorese institutions. Neither Alan nor Nicole can be held responsible for any misunderstandings the above may demonstrate on my part.