Subject: 'Xanana factor' the key to stability in East Timor

Canberra Times

27 June 2007

'Xanana factor' the key to stability in East Timor Michael Leach

WHILE Jose Ramos Horta's emphatic victory in the run-off round of presidential elections offers new hope of political stability in East Timor, all eyes are on the more important parliamentary elections on June 30. The party or coalition commanding a majority in the 65-member assembly will form government, and determine who fills the more powerful post of prime minister.

Xanana Gusmao's new party, CNRT, strongly allied to Ramos Horta, will be seeking to emulate the Nobel laureate's success in the run-off vote and form a new government to replace the current Fretilin administration.

But with 14 political parties contesting the poll, the parliamentary election more closely resembles the divisive multi-party format of the first presidential vote.

Sixty-five representatives will be elected under a party-list proportional representation system to serve five-year terms. Smaller parties must reach a 3per cent threshold to be eligible for seats, which should rule out more than half those running. The key numbers to watch will be a governing majority of 33, and super majority of 44, which allows for constitutional changes.

In the absence of political polling, the first-round presidential election results offer the best available indication of possible outcomes.

If a similar distribution were repeated on June30, no single party will come close to a parliamentary majority in its own right. However, the four main anti-Fretilin opposition parties would together approach the coalition super majority figure of 44 seats.

The strong likelihood is that the CNRT will form a governing coalition with other opposition parties after June30, with Gusmao as prime minister and Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo of the Democratic Party (PD) offered the post of deputy.

Such a result would see Fretilin out of office, but potentially remaining the largest single party in Parliament with close to one-third of the seats, waiting in the wings should new coalitions prove unstable.

The final result on June30 will depend strongly on the impact of the "Xanana factor". While Gusmao is likely to build upon Ramos Horta's first-round share of 22per cent, many from the east see the former president as having taken sides in the east-west tensions of last year.

Much will depend on whether the charismatic former resistance leader still has the symbolic capital to unify a divided nation, or whether his image as a consensus maker is now tarnished. Whatever its composition, the incoming government faces a number of serious challenges. The first is political stability. In the long term, a new coalition government may prove fragile. The opposition parties have anti-Fretilin sentiment in common, and also Catholic Church endorsement, and broadly concur on the need to encourage greater levels of foreign investment, spend more of Timor's oil and gas revenues, and to decentralise government administration.

But once in government, these broad brush strokes may prove insufficient to bind the anti-Fretilin parties to a coherent and stable policy agenda. Policy debate in East Timor remains underdeveloped, with political mobilisation heavily centred on leaders' personalities and regional loyalties.

Without a detailed and transparent coalition agenda, politics could easily descend into a bidding war among governing parties, to satisfy local patronage networks.

Another key challenge will be satisfying the demands of Timorese youth for a greater say in politics. Aside from PD, the opposition parties are still led by the older generation. Along with high youth unemployment, the "disconnect" between the political elite and younger Timorese is a background factor in ongoing political unrest and gang violence. The final challenge is justice. There are grave concerns that culture of impunity for past crimes in East Timor continues to undermine social harmony, combined with the sense that senior political figures were above the law, and the evident fact that security forces had been politicised.

Fretilin now appears to be laying the groundwork for some of its own figures implicated in the crisis to be pardoned, with new clemency legislation for those convicted of crimes other than murder. Unopposed in Parliament, the new Act will pass into law unless vetoed by President Ramos Horta. A new coalition government may not overturn the legislation if their own political associations, such as those with alleged "hit squad" leader Rai Los, currently campaigning for CNRT, compromise them. Such an outcome can only serve to reinforce popular mistrust of the justice system. The 2006 crisis should warn future governments to remain accountable and responsive, to encourage participation and inclusion, and to strongly police the border between ruling party and state areas for which Fretilin has been justly criticised, and recently punished by voters.

It would be a tragedy for all East Timorese, and the next government, if other lessons were taken from the crisis: that armed insurrection is an acceptable means of opposing an elected government, that gangs are a handy resource for warring factions of the political elite, or that disaffected groups can prompt international intervention through force of arms, or conflict promotion among unemployed youth. Though any number of justifications may be offered in relation to the crisis of 2006, these are generally features of underground resistance, not of democratic opposition.

Michael Leach is a research fellow at Deakin University. He is co-editor, with Damien Kingsbury, of East Timor: Beyond Independence, published by Monash University Press.

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