The Timorese elections and their aftermath

By Max Lane — Timor Leste’s third parliamentary election since the restoration of independence in 2002 was held on July 7. The largest of the incumbent parties, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), almost secured an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. It has formed a coalition government with two smaller parties, the Democratic Party (PD) and Frenti-Mudansa (FM). Fretilin was the second largest party and will be the opposition again in parliament.

CNRT outpolled Fretilin in this election, reversing the relationship at the time of the 2007 election. CNRT received 36.7% of the vote, winning 30 seats out of 65. In 2007, CNRT received just 24 percent of the vote and 18 seats. This year, Fretilin won 29.9% of the vote and 25 seats. PD won 10.3% of the vote and eight seats, while FM won 3.1% and two seats.

Voter turnout declined from 80.5% in 2007 to 74.8%. Twenty percent of the vote went to 17 parties that were unable to achieve the 3% threshold legislated in the first Fretilin-dominated parliament. If there had been no threshold, there would be 10 parties represented in the parliament rather than four. All of the smaller parties that had contested the 2007 elections dropped in their vote, except for the very small Socialist Party of Timor (PST), which bucked the trend and increased its vote four times up to 2.4% — but still less than the minimum 3% it was targeting.

These parliamentary elections follow two rounds of election for the post of president. In the second round on April 19, the candidate supported by Xanana Gusmao, Taur Matan Ruak, won with 61% against Fretilin’s Lu’olo at 39%. In the first round, incumbent President Jose Ramos Horta, campaigning without a party organisation, had won just under 19%, coming third.

Strategic setback

Fretilin’s 29% vote must be seen as a strategic defeat. Its vote dropped from 66% in 2002 to 29% in 2007. The 2012 vote indicates that Fretilin has failed to rebuild momentum despite an energetic adversarial opposition strategy for the last five years and a large internal membership mobilisation. It not only did not increase its vote but fell behind CNRT, which it defeated in 2007. Fretilin did receive swings in its favour in some districts, but these were negated by losses in others. Nowhere did the swing to Fretilin even begin to overcome the collapse that took place in 2007.

Perhaps more research is needed to have a full understanding for this defeat, and the surge for CNRT. However, there are some factors which must be taken into account.

First, there has been a general improvement in the material conditions of life for most Timorese over the last several years, including during the course of the last government. This is confirmed in UN Human Development Index reports. It also relates to the fact that Timor starts from a very low base after the destruction in the last phase of the Indonesian occupation.

The Gusmao government also implemented a number of policies that were undoubtedly popular. These included old-age pensions, pensions for veterans of the guerrilla struggle, free maternal care, wages for village heads and a 30% subsidy on the price of rice (imported from Indonesia). With the massive expansion of government revenues over the past two years, coming from oil and gas royalties, there has been some significant improvement of infrastructure (compared to what little existed before). This has been achieved through government funding of a substantial expansion of small-scale private business activity. This program also had many direct and indirect beneficiaries.

The Fretilin opposition and some NGOs have alleged waste, mismanagement and corruption, or at least collusion or nepotism, within the government, especially in relation to private sector contracts with the government. However much of this there is, it clearly had less influence on the election results than the improvements that have been experienced. It is also interesting to note that polling by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission found that corruption was not an issue of concern for the majority of the population.

There is little doubt also that Xanana Gusmao, as the central leader of the national resistance since the late 1980s, has much greater authority and charisma than any of the current leaders of Fretilin.

While Fretilin has been able to consolidate its core membership, and win some small swings (mainly less than 10% in specific districts), it has been unable to expand its base. Apart from the above factors assisting Xanana and CNRT, it is probable that the current Fretilin leadership around Mari Alkatiri also accrued a certain unpopularity due to its aggressive governmental style before 2007 and its very adversarial opposition style since 2007. It is clear that some of the population attribute the chaos of 2006 to Alkatiri’s decision to sack from the army soldiers striking over pay issues. Since 2007, when it took a position of calling the government de facto and unconstitutional, it has acted towards the Xanana government as if it were a mortal enemy.

This extreme approach comes despite the fact that there is no fundamental ideological difference between CNRT and Fretilin on the general direction of economic development. Expressed differences are on specific policy decisions only. After the Fretilin failure in this year’s election, some Fretilin voices argued that they could accept the government’s National Development Strategy and would be willing to join a national unity government. But after five years of extreme oppositionism, there was little enthusiasm for a unity government among CNRT politicians. When a post-election CNRT congress rejected the idea of a unity government and some CNRT politicians made denigrating remarks against Fretilin, scores of Fretilin members protested by setting alight and stoning cars in some areas. In one incident, as police suppressed these actions, one Fretilin member was shot dead.

Subsistence society politics

The CNRT and Fretilin results, as well as the fate of the strongly ideological campaign by the PST, must also be assessed in the context of the political culture of Timor’s majority subsistence rural sector. While Timor Leste’s economy during the Indonesian occupation and since has operated within a capitalist framework, the mode of production in which a majority of people work is closer to subsistence, with only tiny surpluses entering the market. Private ownership of land and exploitative economic relations are still generally rare.

The strong sense of social injustice that pervades the desperately impoverished Timorese rural population takes the form of discontent with neglect by the Dili elite, manifested in few services and projects and a lack of sustained presence of political leaders in poor rural areas. Neglect and delivery are the key concepts of popular political consciousness. This is reinforced by a strong remnant of the radical ideological sentiments of the early national liberation movement, embodied in the word maubere — a strong word for the common people, privileging them as the central members of society.

A popular consciousness based on neglect and delivery vis-a-vis the Dili elite and government has a different dynamic than that which emerges out of relations of class exploitation at the site of production. The ability of the Xanana government of the last five years at least to begin to deliver some things that people feel they need favoured it as incumbent. At the same time, some people’s assessment that Fretilin had little chance of winning, especially after its failure in the presidential elections, may have meant they assessed that it was not going to be in a position to deliver. Fretilin’s strong sense of historical rights over other groups may also have undermined confidence that non-Fretilin villages would receive delivery.

PST campaign

The PST increased its vote to just over 11,000, or 2.4%. This was less than some of its members, sympathisers and observers in Timor expected, some of whom estimated 3-5% as a minimum. These expectations were fuelled during the campaign when the PST president was enthusiastically welcomed in many villages. Furthermore, the PST’s door-to-door campaign resulted in almost 30,000 political contracts being signed by householders with the PST campaigners. These contracts committed the PST to a range of specific policies, including cheap housing, electrification and other deliveries. However, these 30,000 contracts with households, representing 60-80,000 people, did not deliver 60,000 votes, but 11,300.

In explaining the 400% increase in the PST vote on the one hand, and the limitations of this increase on the other, there are probably two key factors. The PST president, Avelino Coelho, had developed a very strong reputation for caring about the rural villages and strong credibility in terms of delivery through his role as state secretary for energy policy and the delivery of free renewable energy to more than 18,000 rural households. However, this did not appear to be an important element in the vote for the PST, whose votes did not come from those villages where the electrification program had been most intense. Coelho’s platform as state secretary proved not strong enough to counter Xanana and CNRT’s central role as main agents of delivery. It is more likely that delivery, even in the electrification program, was attributed to the government in general.

Outside the PST’s promises of delivery, it also ran a strong ideological campaign around the slogans “Factories for the workers, land for the peasants”. The campaign openly defended both socialism and a transition to communism. It used traditional symbols of Marxist-Leninist politics as well as of the 1975 national liberation struggle. Its political education focused on explaining the role of cooperatives, not simply as economic production units, but also as units of cultural and political mobilisation.

In a society where widespread and intense class exploitation is not the dominant character of village social relations, collective, militant political mobilisation against oppressors and its radicalising impact are still weak. However, the lack of a radical tradition based on class struggle is also balanced by the radical tradition of mobilisation against the Portuguese and then Indonesian occupiers. Fretilin in 1975, also inspired by Portuguese and African radicalism, did implant a national liberation popular radicalism.

Thus, the PST’s increased vote seemed to be less due to the impact of the electricity program and more a reflection of the party winning the position of being the main representative of that radical tradition. The PST scored some votes in 85% of the 442 sucos [divisions of subdistricts], including in those where it had no activity. In some of these it won only a few votes, in others several hundred. This seems to be the beginning of a conscious ideology or policy-oriented vote, responding to that aspect of the PST’s campaign.

There can be little doubt that an economic and political system based on mobilised cooperatives would be superior to the capitalist underdevelopment that Timor Leste is bound to experience. However, convincing a majority of the rural population about such collective mobilisation will require a stronger corps of socialist educators than presently exists. The PST has a major task to deepen the education and experience of its militants (and their numbers), whether recruited from village or campus. The election campaign appears to have been a good start to that process.

New government

As expected, on August 8 a new government was formed, based on the coalition between between CNRT, PD and FM. In the list of ministers, vice-ministers and state secretaries appointed, there were some listed as “independents” as well as figures from the three parties. Xanana Gusmao is prime minister. The president of PD, Ferdinand Lasama, is vice-prime minister and minister for social welfare. The head of FM, Jose Luis Guiterres, will be foreign minister.

The government is committed to the economic plans set out in its National Development Strategy Plan proposing a path of capitalist economic development, financed by income from Timor’s oil and gas revenues. Timor Leste will for some years be one of the few capitalist countries where there will be massively increased government spending compared to previous periods. This increase in the role of government spending will frame the political debate and possible interventions by progressives trying to improve the conditions of the people.

While the PST did not win any seats in the parliament, Xanana Gusmao offered a position as state secretary for the Council of Ministers to PST president Avelino Coelho, which he has accepted. With the new appointment of a president of the Council of Ministers, namely the former state secretary Agio Perera, it is not clear what Coelho’s new functions will entail. Coelho is listed as an “independent”, indicating he has been appointed in an individual capacity and not as a representative of the PST. This was the basis of his appointment in the previous government.

Direct Action — August 8, 2012