DILI — Just three weeks into his new job, Rui Araujo, East Timor’s new prime minister, faces the daunting task of filling the shoes of a national icon, Xanana Gusmao.
In late February, Gusmao, nearly 70, finally fulfilled a long-stated pledge to resign and endorsed his successor, Araujo, 51, a former health minister and a New Zealand-trained doctor, to head East Timor’s government until elections are held in 2017.
“I did not expect to be asked” to be prime minister, Araujo, a member of the opposition Fretilin party, told the Nikkei Asian Review in one of his first interviews since taking office.
Gusmao led East Timor’s fight against Indonesia’s 24-year occupation and was elected the first president of the newly independent country in 2002. After conflict among factions of the army and police drove 10% of the country’s population from their homes in 2006, Gusmao then formed a party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), to run in parliamentary elections the following year, eventually winning the prime minister’s job.
The mild-mannered Araujo is a member of Fretilin, the main opposition party in parliament, whose leader, Mari Alkatiri, was the first prime minister of East Timor, elected in 2002, and opposed Gusmao in the prime ministerial election of 2007.
But Gusmao and Alkatiri reconciled during Gusmao’s second term after the 2012 elections, and Alkatiri was tasked with setting up an ambitious new economic zone in the Oecusse enclave, which is part of East Timor but surrounded by Indonesia.
Furthering the rapprochment, Araujo has been joined by Fretilin colleagues in the new government, although he insists the party will remain technically in opposition.
“I have to clarify that Fretilin as a party is not in government, although three senior members of the party have joined the government in an individual capacity. As a party Fretilin is still in the opposition,” Araujo said.
But with an opposition politician now in the prime minister’s office, it is clear that East Timor’s inclusive approach to governance is set to continue, something the new prime minister believes is necessary.
“Given the limited pool of talent we have in the country, we should bring all the available talent to work together in the government. We are too small to be divided when it comes to governance,” Araujo said.
Araujo’s approach marks an extension of Gusmao’s attempts to build a consensus-based political system in East Timor, in which he seeks to give as many potential opponents as possible a stake in running the country — a way to “buy the peace,” according to a new report on East Timor by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which raised concerns that Gusmao’s resignation might leave a power vacuum.
“Our interviews with a range of actors demonstrated a strong narrative in which he [Gusmao] is accorded an almost mythical power: many believe the stability of the country depends upon his hand guiding the people and politics of the state,” the report said.
While a return to the kind of political violence that wracked the tiny country in 2006 is almost unthinkable, there are those who remain opposed to the status quo. Chief among them is Paulino Gama, a former colleague turned rival to Gusmao during East Timor’s fight for independence, who returned from exile in 2013 and began openly challenging Gusmao.
Gama, known as “Mauk Moruk” (meaning “bitter brother”) is currently in a standoff with security forces in Laga in the eastern part of East Timor after violent clashes in January.
Mauk Moruk has powerful allies, not least his brother Cornelio Gama, known as L7, a former member of parliament and leader of a nationwide clandestine network known as “Sagrada Familia.”
Claiming the backing of 200,000 Timorese, around a sixth of the 1.2 million population, L7 told NAR in a rare interview that he and Mauk Moruk see the new government as “unconstitutional,” as it was appointed without first holding an election.
“We will watch for three months to see what they do,” L7 said. “But we want Xanana Gusmao, Taur Matan Ruak (East Timor’s president) and Lere (Lere Anan Timor, the head of the army) to go to Laga to negotiate.” Araujo said he believes that Mauk Moruk does not have widespread support and described the recent clashes in Laga as “a criminal act,” citing an attack on police, allegedly by Mauk Moruk’s gang.
Lingering concerns about security threats from groups such those led by the Gama brothers may be one reason Gusmao is staying on in government, taking the role of minister for planning and strategic investment. But his continuing presence means Araujo, who spent recent years as an adviser to various Timorese ministries, could find himself overshadowed.
“That could be the impression from outside, but everybody in the government agrees with the concept of teamwork, and so far he [Gusmao] has been a very good team player,” Araujo said when asked if Gusmao’s presence in government might be a distraction.
And although Gusmao’s role in government echoes Lee Kuan Yew’s handover to successors in Singapore, where the national icon stayed on as a “minister mentor,” Gusmao has shunned the limelight since Araujo assumed office.
“Gusmao has many achievements,” said Gordon Peake, author of “Beloved Land,” an award-winning memoir of life in East Timor. “Perhaps his most lasting one might be to have self-engineered a political transition without fuss.”
With over $17 billion, or around three times East Timor’s gross domestic product, accrued in a national petroleum fund during his years in office, Gusmao had the cash to spend heavily on road works and electrification, and on giving contracts and government jobs to allies and enemies alike — measures seen as vital for keeping the peace.
Gusmao’s new portfolio will give him a significant say in East Timor’s economy, meaning he could retain much of his influence, often described as patronage, over possible opponents.
“Gusmao will be able to maintain the favor of potential dissidents at both national and district levels, which have been significantly reliant on the disbursement of government contracts,” said Sarah Dewhurst, coauthor of the ODI report.
Furthermore, while Araujo is seen as something of an interim candidate, with far less prestige than his predecessor and with unclear prospects of retaining the prime minister’s job in the next election, he will in the meantime likely bring a fresh approach to government.
Charles Scheiner, an East Timor expert with La’o Hamutuk, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis, believes that the new prime minister will focus on improving East Timor’s roads, health system and education, all of which are in poor condition. “He is a doctor who comes from an orientation of caring for people and delivering services,” noted Scheiner. “That is a different dynamic to a former independence fighter focused on sovereignty.”Show