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Assessing the numbers in Timor-Leste’s elections

Professor Damien Kingsbury
Director, Centre for Citizenship,
Development and Human Rights, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Jose Ramos-Horta’s decision to support the Democratic Party (PD) in the parliamentary elections has two sets of implications for Timor-Leste’s politics. The first and most obvious will be the effect that this has on the outcome of the parliamentary elections and in particular the level of success of PD. The second, less obvious, implication will be for the next, second round of the presidential election, for which Ramos-Horta was unsuccessful.

Assuming that votes for candidates will be translated, more or less, into parliamentary votes, based on Ramos-Horta’s support, with his 18% added to PD’s 17%, PD can expect to receive around 35% of the vote which, extrapolating from first round presidential figures, is likely to make it Timor-Leste’s single largest party and hence in a dominant position to form a majority alliance in parliament.

The difficulty is, however, that while some parties closely extrapolate from presidential to parliamentary results, in the 2007 elections, PD did not. Indeed, the result for PD’s candidate, Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araujo, of 19% in the 2007 presidential race slumped to 11.3% for PD in the parliamentary vote. There was, then, a very big question over whether PD could retain Lasama’s 2012 17% vote for the parliamentary election and, moreover, whether Ramos-Horta’s personal vote would hold when he was not a candidate.

If these votes cannot hold, then PD may end up as the junior partner in a parliamentary alliance or, less likely, it may be out of an alliance altogether. If these votes do hold up, then PD may be a, or the, dominant party. 
The further question is if, in exchange for his support, Ramos-Horta would want to be appointed as prime minister. Under the Timor-Leste system, ministers can be appointed from outside parliament, with those appointed from within being replaced from their party’s electoral list.

Lasama would, however, probably be looking covetously upon the position of prime minister for himself, if adding Ramos-Horta’s support to PD was to produce a plurality in the parliament. This would then leave open the option of Ramos-Horta returning to his former position, between 2002-06, as Foreign Minister, which he undertook with considerable success. Having said this, Ramos-Horta may also be satisfied with the work he has done to date for Timor-Leste, spanning some 38 years, and move out of official life.

The question is, however, whether the 18% of the vote that was allocated to Ramos-Horta in the first presidential round would automatically flow to PD, even with Ramos-Horta’s endorsement. No doubt much of the vote he received was due to his personal standing as president. But as he will not be standing in the parliamentary election and party loyalties remain strong, it is less than certain that all of his vote will automatically flow to PD.

However, Ramos-Horta’s endorsement of PD does give the once student-based party a much stronger chance of doing well in the parliamentary elections and positions it, and Lasama, well for future contests.

More interesting, however, was Ramos-Horta’s neutrality over the issue of his successor as president. In this, he has refused to endorse either of the two candidates going through to the second round of the presidential election.

By endorsing PD in the parliamentary elections, however, Ramos-Horta may have more subtly indicated his support for whichever candidate PD chooses to support. At this stage, Lasama has not indicated whether he will throw PD’s support behind Fretilin’s Lu-Olo or the Xanana Gusmao-back Taur Matan Ruak. Lu-Olo received 28% of the vote which, if it is consistent with 2007, will probably also be reflected in Fretilin’s vote in the parliamentary elections. Ruak received 25% of the vote, which could reasonably be allocated to CNRT.

Despite occasional differences, PD enjoyed five years in government as a parliamentary alliance partner with Gusmao’s CNRT, with Lasama occupying the position of parliamentary president (speaker or chair) with the support of CNRT founder and later prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. The two are generally understood to have had a close alliance and Lasama will need a strong incentive to beak it.

If Lasama remains neutral - which still might only be a superficial neutrality - much of PD’s support can be expected to go to Ruak, given the party’s traditional antipathy towards Fretilin. If he supports Ruak, that flow of support would be almost complete and, with Ramos-Horta’s support for PD, potentially be enough to create a CNRT-PD government. Having said that, such a government would probably try to pick up extra parliamentary support from minor parties, to increase their buffer over a Fretilin-led opposition.

However, if Lasama was to break with his own political past and endorse Lu-Olo, it is reasonable to expect PD’s presidential vote would split. A split vote would favour Lu-Olo, having already secured the support of a couple of minor parties, and potentially be enough to push him over the 50% line. 

The question would be, then, where support for Ramos-Horta was allocated. Had Ramos-Horta not indicated any political preference for the parliamentary outcome, it is likely his vote would have been fairly evenly divided between the two candidates.

Added to PD supporters’ traditional antipathy towards Fretilin, this would have resulted in Ruak picking up votes to close the gap on Lu-Olo’s three per cent lead and, probably, passing it. If, however, Lasama does opt in favour of a particular candidate and most of Ramos-Horta’s support follows, this could be expected to be the decisive moment that determines the presidential outcome, either Ruak will carry most of the non-Fretilin vote and be comfortably elected, or the first round non-Fretilin vote will be split, making it a close contest for the presidency.

How the political parties line up on the issue of the presidency will also indicate how the parliamentary election and consequent alliances to form government is likely to unfold.

Monday, December 05, 2016

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