With results from last Saturday’s parliamentary election in Timor-Leste (East Timor) nearly complete, the former ruling party, Fretilin, has seen its support slip badly from the commanding position it enjoyed as the former Indonesian-occupied country gained independence. With 29% of the vote, it has a plurality over the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), the party formed by the country’s first (and now ex-) president Xanana Gusmao, which won about 24%. The next largest parties were the ASDT-PSD (16%) and the Democratic Party (11%). Three other parties won between 3% (the minimum required to win a seat) and 4.5%.
There was never much doubt that Fretilin would emerge as the largest party, as it is the party with the countrywide organizational apparatus. However, 29% is a pretty small total and its lead turned out to be quite narrow.
I have not seen seat totals, but with
52 of the 65 seats elected by nationwide proportional representation, the seats breakdown will closely reflect that of the votes. (Previously there also were 13 seats elected in single-seat districts by plurality, but as discussed in the comments, it appears that these seats no longer exist.)
In 2001, Fretelin had won 57% of the vote. There are not many (or any?) other examples of young countries in which the “national liberation movement” has seen its support plummet so far and so fast. While the divisions within the country’s political elite do not necessarily augur well for smooth power-sharing, the end of Fretilin dominance should be hailed as a promising sign in the development of East Timorese democracy. This is one young country that will not degenerate into a one-party state.
The formation of an alternative center of political power in Timor-Leste was aided by the constitutional design, which included not only proportional representation for the parliament, but also a separately elected presidency. The 2002 presidential election was won (with over 82% of the vote) by Gusmao, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Indonesian resistance, but one who had left Fretilin in the 1980s. He ran as an independent, and thus served as a popular and constitutional counterweight to Fretilin’s dominance of the parliament.
In the country’s second presidential election, held just this April, another prominent nationalist (and ex-Fretilin) leader, Jose Ramos Horta, was elected president. Serving as as Prime Minister at the time, Ramos Horta’s 21.8% was good enough for second place to the Fretilin candidate’s 27.9% in the initial round; he won the runoff easily (around 70%). The results of these two elections show that political pluralism is quite real in Timor-Leste.
The CNRT is not much of a party. As noted in the The Economist in the June 21 issue:
Members of [Gusmao’s] brand-new party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), are feverishly drafting a party constitution and programme. Mr GusmÃ£o may well win even without them. The CNRT’s rallies attract huge crowds. But its campaign relies solely on Mr GusmÃ£o’s charisma and on berating Fretilin for incompetence and corruption. The CNRT, whose name recalls the resistance coalition Mr GusmÃ£o led in the late 1990s, does not even try to offer policies.
The CNRT is thus a classic example of a “presidentialized party” in that it is formed not be a programmatic vehicle but rather as a means to gain legislative representation to bolster the president. However, in this case, it is, oddly enough, the former, but still popular, president, rather than the incumbent, who has made the party one of the country’s largest.* The presidency is quite weak. So, in a sense, the CNRT allows for a second Gusmao term, at the head of the more powerful institutions of government, while Ramos Horta will hold the symbolic head-of-state role for which the Nobel Prize winner (1996) and UN Secretary General-aspirant is probably most suited.
Fretilin has rejected the president’s call for a grand coalition with the CNRT. However, the electoral result and the minimal constitutional powers held by the presidency–which include nominating as prime minister the party leader the president believes best able to form a stable majority–will allow the CNRT and other parties to form a coalition cabinet. (The fourth-place PD is the party of Ferdinand de Araujo, whose 19% of the vote in April’s presidential election almost kept Ramos Horta out of the runoff.**)
From within my profession of political science, there are many voices that decry the selection of presidential or even semi-presidential models for young democracies. However, the Timor-Leste experience suggests that the mere existence of separate presidential elections, even for a relatively weak office, can be beneficial for creating an alternative pole of electoral competition for a leader who lacks the kind of on-the-ground organizational prowess that a “national liberation movement” can claim.
Democracy and development in a country as ravaged by occupation and war as Timor-Leste will always be difficult, but the completion of this second cycle of elections has given the country a chance.
* This “ex-presidentialization” was no doubt facilitated by the provision in the electoral law (Article 39) that provides that the ballot shall show the photo of the candidate ranked at the no. 1 position on the national list. Presumably that was Gusmao for the CNRT. (The text of the is available from IFES; strangely, I do not see any provision in the law on those thirteen single-seat districts.
** The ASDT-PSD list, which placed third in the parliamentary elections includes the party that ran Lucia Lobato as its presidential candidate. She won 8.9% of the vote then, placing fifth. (Independent Francisco Xavier do Amaral was fourth with 14.4%. I wonder which lists his supporters tended to favor. From the aggregate results, it would appear that they were somewhat likely to back the ASDT-PSD, given that the two leading parties did not perform that differently in the two elections (if we take Ramos Horta to be the de-facto CNRT candidate, even though he ran as an independent).