When Jose Ramos-Horta swept to victory in the second round of East Timor's Presidential elections a couple of months ago, his supporters in Canberra and Washington applauded gleefully. Horta's triumph seemed to signal the end of the troublesome, because occasionally independent-minded, Fretilin-dominated government that had been a target of the Australian-led military occupation of the island.
Horta, the Aussie and American political establishment and media reasoned, would consolidate his victory by leading his new National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party to a landslide in the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of June. Horta's support for neoconservative foreign policy, including even the invasion of Iraq, his commitment to an open-ended occupation of East Timor, and his mellow attitude towards Aussie exploitation of oil and gas in the Timor Gap had long made him a favourite of John Howard and of the Bush administration.
A closer look at the election results, though, suggested that Horta's new party would have trouble winning control of East Timor's parliament. Horta has been hailed in Canberra as the great uniter of Timorese, but he was defeated in the first round of the Presidential election, and only ultimately prevailed by cutting deals with parties based in the populous West of the country and by using Anzac troops and police to hamper Fretilin's campaign.
The preliminary results from this week's elections to parliament show how wrong Gusmao's boosters were in their predictions. Horta's party has failed to win a plurality, let alone a majority, of the vote. Its 22% is the same result Horta got in the first round of the Presidential election, and Fretilin's 29% is slightly higher than the share of the vote its candidate Lu Olo won in that poll. The Social Democratic Assocation and the Democratic Party, two organisations representing the interests of the Western part of the country, have once again done very well.
I think that this result is consistent with the forecast I made at the end of my article on the Presidential elections:
"East Timor’s constitution makes the post of President a largely symbolic one. To consolidate this victory and achieve real power, the faction around Horta and Gusmao needs to win a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June the 30th and create a new Prime Minister and Cabinet line-up of their choice. Their fledgling National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party is still a small splinter from the Fretilin organisation, and is unlikely to win anything like a majority at the end of June. If Fretilin wins a majority or even a plurality of seats, then a constitutional crisis could quickly develop, as Horta faces off against a hostile Prime Minister. If parliament is divided between Fretilin, on the one hand, and the CNRT and its western allies, on the other hand, then East Timor's regional tensions could be exacerbated rather than healed."
Watch out for Anzac troops playing politics, as Horta and Howard try to make the most of a miserable election result.