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With Timor-Leste election win, Xanana Gusmão is back on top

Timor-Leste politician and independence hero Xanana Gusmao briefs journalists during a press conference in the capital Dili on 23 May, 2023 after the parliamentary election the day before. (Photo by Valentino Dariel Sousa/AFP)

Just a day before casting ballots in a parliamentary election, crowds of proud Timor-Leste citizens bustled in the capital Dili last weekend for joyful celebrations of their national independence. 

On 20 May, the youngest country in Southeast Asia marked 21 years of internationally recognised sovereignty. It marked the occasion that Saturday with festivities including a parade of soldiers marching through the streets of Dili, which gave way to last Sunday’s high-turnout parliamentary election. 

As the dust settles with final results in hand, Timor-Leste’s first president after independence, José Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmão, 76, is returning to power once again. A key leader of the country’s fight for sovereignty from Indonesia, Gusmão and his National Congress of the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) party won a plurality 41.65% of the vote.

According to final ballot updates, CNRT won in 10 of 14 municipalities nationwide and gained 31 seats out of 65 total in the National Parliament. Falling short of the 33 seats needed for an absolute majority, Gusmão must now create a coalition with another party to form a new government. 

Barring any hurdles, Gusmão could be the next head of government. That would mean replacing Prime Minister José Maria Vasconcelos, who is more commonly known as Taur Matan Ruak, of the Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin).

Last weekend’s elections featured some 890,145 registered voters and about 350 more polling stations than for last year’s presidential contest. That earlier contest saw the landslide victory of Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, 73, another independence hero and an ally of Gusmão. In Timor-Leste, prime ministers lead the government and have much more legislative power than the president, who is the head of state. 

As might be expected for the young country, such independence-era figures continue to loom large over the ballot. 

The latest results would usher out the former leading party, Freitlin. A rival of CNRT that placed second in last week’s race with 25.7% of the vote, Freitlin is the civilian successor of the organisation at the centre of the independence movement that won sovereignty for Timor-Leste from Indonesia. 

The party’s secretary-general is former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, 73, another independence figure who co-founded Freitlin. Alkatiri and Gusmão have long been divided, at times bitterly so.

Gusmão was a prominent member of Freitlin during the struggle for independence and served as the group’s press secretary. After independence, he won the country’s first presidential elections in 2001, taking office the year later after Timor-Leste officially achieved independence.

In 2006, he successfully pressured Alkatiri to resign as prime minister, accusing his former comrade of using violence against his political opponents. Gusmão finished his presidential term the next year in 2007 but declined to run again. 

Instead, he took leadership of the newly created CNRT. Since then, both parties have accused each other of creating political instability. 

Throughout all of this, Timor-Leste is still recovering from centuries of foreign occupation, first by Portugal and later a particularly devastating turn by Indonesia. 

A UN-managed truth and reconciliation commission has estimated the Indonesian military oversaw the deaths of as many as 202,600 Timorese people, roughly a fourth of the country’s population, during its 24-year occupation of the country.

Though most of these deaths are attributed to famine, approximately 20,000 of the lost were recorded as due to violence or disappearance.   

Rising from these ruins, Timor-Leste still battles severe poverty and unemployment, as well as serious food insecurity and alarming rates of child stunting. Timor-Leste’s economy has mostly relied on offshore oil revenues from the Bayu Undan oil and gas field, but these are increasingly precarious with almost-exhausted production.

To fill the coming revenue gap, Gusmão has pushed for development of the large-scale Greater Sunrise gas project in the Timor Sea. Originally discovered in 1974, the field was left untouched for decades in part due to a maritime border dispute with Australia. This was resolved in 2018, but the countries are still negotiating how to develop the field.

Timor-Leste is pushing for a pipeline to take the gas into its own territory for processing, which Australia has opposed.

Gusmão is also expected to push for his country’s accession to the ASEAN bloc, a goal that has been a top priority for Timor-Leste from its earliest days as a sovereign state. This too has incidental ties to the independence movement, as Indonesia is currently serving as the rotational chair of the bloc.

However, in key ways, the times have changed. The two states built cordial relations shortly after the end of the Indonesian occupation, and the much-larger neighbour has long advocated for Timorese accession to ASEAN. 

Though the Indonesian government frequently targeted Gusmão during the independence struggle – at one point handing him a life sentence that was later commuted – he may now find a powerful ally in his one-time foe.

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