Jose Ramos-Horta wins presidential ballot in Timor-Leste but no congratulations from Scott Morrison

Apr 29, 2022
Jose Ramos Horta
In declaring victory, president-elect Ramos-Horta said he expected Timor-Leste to become the 11th member of ASEAN. Image: Flickr / European Parliament

José Ramos-Horta will be the new President of Timor-Leste from May 20, 2022, following his decisive second round win on April 19.

The leaders of Singapore and Portugal congratulated him on his election but apparently not Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, or Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne. This is a worrying sign of neglect, following the controversy about Solomon Islands.

Francisco “Lú Olo” Guterres and José Ramos-Horta, the candidates in Timor-Leste’s accepted the interim result announced on April 20 by the election technical administration STAE, which showed 62.09 per cent voted for Ramos-Horta, against incumbent Lú Olo with 37.91 per cent.

Nearly 860,000 people in the country of 1.3 million were eligible to vote, and more than 75 per cent of voters turned up to cast their ballots in the second round, very similar to the first round on March 19.

Ramos-Horta pledged to use his five-year term to break a longstanding deadlock between the two main political parties, FRETILIN and CNRT. However, his victory portends a showdown with the parliament.

While the incoming President is talking up Timor-Leste’s membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), his sponsor, Xanana Gusmão, is talking up the Greater Sunrise gasfield project and the associated Tase Mane petrochemical complex on the south coast.

Ramos-Horta has moved immediately to form another parliamentary majority alliance before May 20, so that he won’t be sworn-in before the current President of Parliament, Aniceto Guterres, a FRETILIN Central Committee Member. According to art 77 of the Constitution, the President of the Republic is sworn-in by the President of the Parliament in the presence of the MPs and representatives of the organs of sovereignty. Ramos-Horta has been saying that Aniceto Guterres’ selection as President of the Parliament is illegal. But if the present majority alliance between FRETILIN, People’s Liberation party (PLP) and youth party KHUNTO doesn’t fall apart before May 20, Ramos-Horta will have to be sworn-in by the present President of Parliament.

An early dissolution of the Parliament and another early legislative election – as promised by Ramos-Horta to Xanana Gusmão – could only take place after Ramos-Horta takes office on May 20. But he will be only able to do so if the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) and its allies are able to cause a serious institutional crisis to justify a dissolution of Parliament and thus an early election.

On April 22, 2022, FRETILIN, PLP and KHUNTO held a meeting to re-affirm their political alliance in the Parliament, so it looks like Ramos-Horta wouldn’t be able to quickly fulfil his promise to Gusmão.

The next regular legislative election is due in May 2023.

This second round outcome is similar to that of the 2007 presidential election, when national liberation figure Xanana Gusmão last backed Ramos-Horta. That time the majority was bigger, at 69 per cent of the vote. The vote for Lú Olo this time was impaired by the alleged support of Lere Anan Timur for Ramos-Horta in the second round. Lere ran in the first round carrying the FRETILIN flag and was able to grab more than 30,000 votes, most of which were from FRETILIN members who saw him as a FRETILIN figure from the liberation war. On the other hand, Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak strongly campaigned for Lú Olo in the second round, but not in the first round.

In declaring victory, president-elect Ramos-Horta said he expected Timor-Leste to become the 11th member of ASEAN “within this year or next year at the latest.” Timor-Leste currently holds observer status in ASEAN.

Outgoing President Lú Olo said at a media conference on April 22, 2022, “As the President of the Republic, I call on the Timorese people to accept the result of the 2022 Presidential Election with peace and joy to maintain stability in the country.”

He stressed that peace and stability are important to advance national development to ensure social justice and a decent life for all Timorese people.

“I accept the result of the second round of the Presidential Election with joy as the Timorese people decided to pick their new President of the Republic for the next five years,” Lú Olo said.

“I congratulate Horta, the newly elected President of the Republic. I believe that he would cooperate with the National Parliament, the Eight Constitutional Government, and the Court of Appeal to continue implementing all the things that we conquered over the past five years.”

Lú Olo also praised the Timorese people for their political maturity in maintaining peace, tranquillity, and stability during the electoral campaign.

Lú Olo also expressed his appreciation for all the unconditional support from the three political parties, FRETILIN, People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (KHUNTO): “I would also like to express my appreciation for all the support came from martial and ritual arts group in Timor-Leste.”

During his Presidency, Lú Olo had to deal with the undermining of the government led by FRETILIN following the 2017 legislative elections, when CNRT convinced enough MPs to reject the five year program put forward by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. As it was a minority government, CNRT and its allies were able to block the VIII Constitutional program approval by the Parliament and so create a serious institutional crisis. Lú Olo dissolved the parliament and authorised a new legislative election on May 12, 2018, which was won by the pre-election Alliance of Majority Parties (AMP) led by Gusmão, President of CNRT. The AMP majority of 34 comprised Gusmão’s CNRT with 21 seats, Matan Ruak’s PLP with 8 seats, and Khunto with 5 seats. FRETILIN won 23 seats, the Democratic Party (PD) 5 seats, and the Democratic Development Forum of five parties won 3 seats. There are 65 seats in the parliament.

Following these 2018 legislative elections, Lú Olo refused to accept the proposal by the then Prime-Minister Ruak to nominate as Ministers seven people put forward by CNRT and 2 by KHUNTO, based on the general public perception that they were not people of integrity. CNRT refused to nominate others to replace them and so were under-represented in the new Cabinet led by Ruak. Here were the seeds of conflict between Gusmão on the one hand and Ruak and Lú Olo on the other.

In January 2020, when the CNRT members voted down their own Budget, and Ruak offered his resignation, Lú Olo did not immediately accept his resignation but asked for discussions to enable a new majority to form in the parliament, and if that failed, then a new election would be called.

Gusmão put forward a new coalition of CNRT with 21 seats, PD with 5 seats, KHUNTO with 5 seats and Democratic Development Forum with its 3 seats, to form a new government. This new parliamentary coalition proposed Xanana Gusmão as the new Prime-Minister while Ruak was still Prime Minister. At the same time, Timor-Leste was facing difficulties brought on by Covid-19 and floods, which needed action by a functioning government. Lú Olo did manage this political instability by securing a government which could take prevention and control measures against Covid-19 and meet the needs of flood victims.

On May 4, 2020, Gusmão called on MPs to reject emergency regulations for the Covid-19 pandemic, but the five Khunto MPs did not agree, and the alliance disintegrated, allowing FRETILIN MPs to contribute to a new majority coalition which was able to sustain the minority government under Prime Minister Ruak.

Gusmão has never accepted these decisions by Lú Olo, and his support for Ramos-Horta aimed at ending the majority alliance in the Parliament and consequently causing the fall of the current government through a successful motion of no confidence or motion of censure. During both rounds of the recent presidential election, Gusmão and Ramos-Horta repeatedly alleged that Lú Olo’s actions were unconstitutional.

Later in 2020 the parliament adopted a Budget and authorised a cost-benefit analysis of the commitments by the previous government to Greater Sunrise and the associated and Tase Mane project. This led to the shelving of these projects, and the write-down of the government’s equity in the Greater Sunrise Joint Venture from US$673 million to zero.

The National Budget for 2022 was adopted in January this year, allocating US$1.84 billion to the government’s six key areas:

  • Development of Human Capital (Education, Training and Health)
  • Housing and Social Inclusion
  • Productive Sectors (Agriculture, Tourism), Environment and Connectivity
  • Private Sector Development
  • Rural Development
  • Good Governance.

The Budget is largely financed from the Petroleum Fund, which stood at US$18.5 billion at the start of 2022. The sustainable withdrawal is calculated at US$554 million, but the actual withdrawal will be just over US$1 billion, indicating a continuing drawdown on the Petroleum Fund.

Ramos-Horta is expected to continue to try to create a pro-Gusmão government by convincing at least 12 MPs to support CNRT who would then nominate Gusmão as the new Prime Minister whom Ramos-Horta would in turn confirm.

If that doesn’t happen, Ramos-Horta will be under enormous pressure to dissolve the current parliament, even though there is no serious institutional crisis. Such a move would be unconstitutional.

While the election has now aligned the Presidency with Gusmão, this is not yet the unity which Ramos-Horta claims to represent. The prospect is for political instability and high-risk economic initiatives in what is now a much more unstable world.

Peter Murphy

April 27, 2022

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