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YANGON – It has been the most talked about issue in East Timor’s politics for at least year. The “will he, won’t he” saga surrounding independence hero Xanana Gusmão’s pledge to resign as prime minister ended with the nomination on February 10 of Rui Araujo, a New Zealand-educated doctor, as his successor.
Araujo’s appointment will likely mean a national unity government comprising Gusmão’s National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) and Araujo’s Fretilin, hitherto the main opposition party.
The CNRT and Fretilin, once antagonists, had drawn closer in recent months, with Gusmão appointing Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri, a former prime minister, to manage a new economic zone project in Oecusse, an East Timorese enclave surrounded by Indonesian west Timor.
The 68-year-old Gusmão had flagged his wish to resign more than a year ago, saying the country, also known as Timor-Leste, needed to appoint new, younger leaders to replace the likes of himself and Alkatiri.
After a near civil war in East Timor in 2006, Gusmão won office the next year and has kept the peace since. But his resignation, though long anticipated, has prompted concerns about whether a replacement can combine the former independence fighter’s popularity and stature.
“His successor will face the challenge of how to address potential sources of social and political unrest without Gusmão’s unparalleled authority,” said The Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict, a Jakarta-based think tank, in a July 2014 report looking ahead to Gusmão’s possible resignation.
East Timor became independent in 2002, after voting in 1999 to leave Indonesia. But one of the world’s youngest states has been run by some of the world’s longest-standing political leaders. Most, like Gusmão and Alkatiri, can date their careers to as far back as the Nixon White House.
Gusmão’s resignation follows the 2012 departure of José Ramos Horta, a former president and prime minister. That was the first signal of a possible changing of the guard in the tiny nation’s politics.
Ramos Horta, the current head of the United Nations mission in Guinea-Bissau, told The Edge Review that Gusmão had been mulling stepping down for several years.
“Xanana confided to me way back in 2011 that if re-elected in 2012 he would serve only half the term and begin the handover,” Ramos Horta said.
Gusmão’s tenure saw economic growth hit double digits on the back of oil and gas revenues. New roads have been built, linking isolated mountain villages to nearby towns, and electricity has been provided to 60 per cent of the population in what remains one of Asia’s poorest countries.
“He kept the peace and investment increased,” said Tony Jape, a leading Timorese businessman and founder of Dili’s largest shopping mall.
But two of Gusmão’s ministers were charged with corruption during his time as prime minister, while connected cadres from the resistance era have often had the first options on juicy government contracts for new roads. This comes on top of controversial pensions for veterans, which, although already exceeding the health budget, will be doubled in 2015 to close in on the education budget of US$140 million.
Corruption and inequality are only some of the problems looming for the new prime minister, however. Gusmão did little to boost East Timor’s non-oil economy, in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, coffee and fishing.
A full 85 per cent of the 2015 state budget depends on oil and gas revenues – money which is running dry, literally, because East Timor’s reserves will be depleted by 2022 and amid plummeting global energy prices.
Unless Araujo can negotiate a resolution to a dispute over another, larger field in the Timor Sea, the country will be left relying on the US$17 billion in savings garnered to date from oil and gas.
As for Gusmão, despite resigning as Prime Minister, he is not about to retire to some hermetic fiefdom in the Timorese hills, farming vegetables and penning verse, as he once promised to do. He will work as the new investment minister under Araujo, as well as function as a “mentoring minister” – a position akin to the roles played by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime leaders of Singapore and Malaysia, after they left office.