Presidential election in East Timor

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.

0 thoughts on “Presidential election in East Timor

  1. Preliminary results look as if Ramos Horta will ultimately be elected, probably in a runoff. If the early Dili figures hold across the country, with Ramos Horta not reaching >50% but outpolling his nearest rival 2 to 1, i would be a good argument for the alternative vote or for reducing the threshold in the first round.

    I’m not surprised by the fall in Fretilin’s vote. There’s been tension since independence between figures like Xanana, who stayed and fought and Fretilin’s external leadership who spent the occupation in exile. In 1997 Xanana left Fretilin in favour of becoming leader of broad-based coalition of all parties. Xanana recently founded the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (Conselho Nacional de Reconstrução do Timor)and will be a CNRT candidate in the legislative elections. Ramos-Horta is an independnet although both Xanana and the CNRT have endorsed him.

    I am surprised that the Democratic Party, who appeal to people who grew up under the Indonesian occupation, speak Bahasa Indonesia or Tetum rather than Portuguese, and don’t identify strongly with either Fretilin or Xanana, seems not to have done nearly as well as Fretilin or the CNRT.


  2. I would be rather surprised if the Dili vote proved typical. For one thing, the recent clashes between the police and army partly represented an east-west split. For another, in poor countries, capital cities often have different voting patterns from those of rural areas.

    Whether differences between Dili and the country as a whole would increase or decrease Horta’s chances of either winning in one round or facing a viable runoff opponent, I have no idea.


  3. Reuters has the count at 70% with Ramos-Horta slightly ahead on 21.75 percent, De Araujo (Democratic Party) on 21.73 percent and Guterres (Fretilin) on 21.39 percent. Those are really bad figures for a runoff since it’s almost random which of the 3 leading candidates will go into the second round.

    Given that Fretilin has made itself an outlier in the campaign, the non-Fretilin candidate is almost certain of election in the second round. Whatever the presidential result, Fretilin’s chances of retaining its dominant majority in the parliament have to be about zero.


  4. Interesting that the Fretilin candidate might be eliminated. Alan is probably right that he could not win the runoff (i.e., is the Condorcet loser). Thus it would be a good thing for East Timor if the runoff could provide a choice between two non-Fretilin candidates who could offer competing visions for a non-Fretilin approach as the nation heads into its more-important assembly election.

    Of course, with more counting to be done, the runoff match-up is not yet certain.


  5. Apparently, Fretilin will not only see its candidate advance to the runoff, after all, but with the highest vote total. No one won 30% (but that’s more than the 21.75% reported when counting was at 70%, confirming my hunch that rural areas would lean more towards Fretilin).

    The runoff will pit Fretilin’s Lun Olo Guterres against outgoing PM, Jose Ramos Horta.

    Not surprisingly, there are allegations of “illogical” results that could only be evidence of fraud and calls for a recount, but the electoral commission has rejected the petitions.


  6. The final figures declared by the CNE (national electoral council) were 28% for Lu Olo (Fretilin), 22% for Ramos Horta, and 19% for de Araujo (PD). Fretilin’s vote in the constituent assembly election was 57%, so they’ve suffered a fairly dramatic swing.

    Ramos Horta has the support of the 6 other non-Fretilin candidates in the run-off, so he should enjoy a fairly easy win in the second round. The legislative elections in June are going to be a lot more complex.


  7. Ramos-Horta won the runoff 73% to 27%. The legislative elections are scheduled for 30 June. On these figures, Fretilin has little prospect of regaining power.


  8. That would rank among the worst all-time changes in vote percentage between rounds. So bad it is negative: from 28% against many opponents to 27% with only one!

    I wonder if the PD candidate (Araujo) would have made more of a race of it. Probably not much, but he couldn’t have done worse.


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