Ballot box painted into national flag colors - East Timor. Image: iStock

Timor-Leste will go to the polls on May 12 for the second time in less than a year, with the country’s politicians calling upon voters to break a stalemate that ended almost a decade of hard-earned political stability.

Campaigning will officially begin on April 10, and the election is set to be hotly contested by the two opposing political camps that have consolidated ahead of the vote.

Led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin was the political wing of Timor-Leste’s independence movement. After winning the most seats in legislative elections last July, it formed a minority government with the smaller Democratic Party, controlling 30 of the national parliament’s 65 seats.

That government collapsed in December when the opposition Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) voted against the government’s program for the second time since July, forcing President Francisco Guterres to dissolve parliament. The AMP is composed of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), led by former prime minister Xanana Gusmão, and two smaller parties that won seats for the first time last July — the anti-corruption People’s Liberation Party founded by former president Taur Matan Ruak, and the anti-establishment Khunto.

That alliance was made permanent ahead of the May elections under the new name Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP). Fretilin and the Democrats will campaign separately but may renew their coalition after the polls if they can form a majority.

“Elections in other democratic nations, like Germany and Belgium, have failed to produce sustainable governments in recent times,” says Michael Leach, a professor in politics and international relations at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “That said, the 2018 elections could prove a far tenser affair than the previous ones in 2017.”

Political gridlock

In past times of crisis, Fretilin and the CNRT worked together in national unity governments to preserve political stability. After a contested election in 2007 led to riots and brought the country to the brink of civil war, the two parties formed a unity government led by Gusmão, who rose to fame as a pro-independence fighter during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1998.

When Gusmão decided to step down in 2015 after eight years in office, the CNRT again formed a broader coalition with Fretilin. Rui Maria de Araujo took his place, with the younger politician signaling a shift away from the older generation of leaders that includes Gusmão and Alkatiri.

That deal was shattered in the aftermath of the July elections, with both men returning to the fray and leading the country down a more polarized path. Despite the heightened tensions, Timor Leste has come a long way from the political violence of 2007 and 2008, when assailants attacked the country’s president and prime minister.

“The current political impasse cemented the idea that politicians can agree to disagree without having to resort to violence,” says Claudio Providas, Timor-Leste country director for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). “Politicians have also behaved responsibly, avoiding any provocations.”

Black gold

Timor-Leste’s economy has expanded at a rate of around 4-5 percent since 2012, but that remains a far cry from the double-digit growth rates the country recorded in earlier years. Positioned on the oil-rich Timor Sea that divides the island from northern Australia, the country is now close to earning the full potential of the riches that lie beneath its waters.

Timor-Leste and Australia will sign a treaty on March 6 to demarcate a maritime boundary between the two countries, finally settling a dispute that has roiled for decades over who owns the $30-45 billion worth of oil under the Timor Gap

Timor-Leste and Australia will sign a treaty on March 6 to demarcate a maritime boundary between the two countries, finally settling a dispute that has roiled for decades over who owns the $30-45 billion worth of oil under the Timor Gap. While the final details are still under wraps, Timor-Leste is expected to gain up to 70 percent of the revenues.

Gusmão led the country’s negotiations for much of the agreement process, pushing for an on-shore processing plant on the country’s southern coast to pipe in gas and provide much-needed jobs. That proposal is unlikely to succeed, but the CNRT leader is trumpeting his success on the campaign trail.

“This could see Timor-Leste’s coffers increase substantially over the next two decades,” says Leach. “Gusmão will likely see his success in maritime boundary negotiations with Australia as a powerful tool for campaigning for the AMP.”

Corruption allegations

Allegations of corruption against the country’s ruling class have multiplied as Timor-Leste’s oil wealth has grown in recent years. Alkatiri and his family have been linked to kickbacks from the Houston-based oil company ConocoPhillips, while several politicians who served under Gusmão have been prosecuted and arrested for corruption.

The Timor-Leste Anti-Corruption Commission was established in 2009, but the legislature’s failure to pass specific anti-corruption laws has forced the commission to rely on the public prosecutor’s office to investigate its cases. A slow-moving judicial process for allegations against politicians, combined with pressure from the government, means that many cases never see the light of day.

“Preventing and resolving corruption is still a big problem in Timor-Leste,” says Raimundos Oki, a Timorese journalist who was sued for defamation by former PM Araujo and found not guilty. “Some politicians have been accused by the public prosecutor’s office but are still active in the current government.”

The commission’s first chairman is a co-founder of the PLP, which campaigned against corruption in last year’s elections and became the country’s third-largest party with eight seats. Along with Khunto, both parties tapped into public discontent directed at the allegedly corrupt governments headed by Fretilin and the CNRT.

With those parties now pitted against each other, it’s up to Timorese voters to decide which side is more honest in the fight against corruption. The country’s petroleum fund is depleting fast and could disappear entirely by 2026, a dire prediction for a small nation that desperately needs more funding to pursue its development priorities.

“There now seems little prospect of return to the power-sharing government,” says Leach. “The AMP will be a formidable electoral force, and Fretilin has promised to take its government program to the people.”

Giacomo Tognini is a London-born Italian journalist currently based in the United States. A longtime resident of Southeast Asia, his articles have been published in Bloomberg News, the Huffington Post, Worldcrunch, and the Jakarta Globe.

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