DILI — Celebrating with party supporters at the headquarters of his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, Xanana Gusmao was his usual mix of backslapping and banter last Tuesday.
“I’m anti-smoking, don’t be like me,” he said, laughing, before lighting one up. He could afford to be a bit facetious given that three days earlier the coalition he leads won a parliamentary majority in what was the second election in less than a year in East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste.
The last vote in July 2017 led to a minority government led by Mari Alkatiri of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin. But Gusmao and his coalition allies in the Alliance for a Parliamentary Majority blocked Alkatiri’s budget, and soon after, in January, the government fell, only 4 months after it was sworn in.
Alkatiri, a Muslim of Yemeni descent in what is one of only two Catholic majority countries in Asia, told me that he thought his party would win at least 30 seats, up from 23 last year.
“The winner is already here in front you,” he said, after voting at a school near Dili’s spectacular mountain-fringed harbour.
But in the end Alkatiri’s party won the same number of seats as it did last year, while Gusmao’s new coalition won almost half the popular vote. That will give it 34 seats out of the 65 in East Timor’s parliament, the MPs elected on the same D’Hondt system used in north of Ireland, which, as it happens, is about the same size geographically as East Timor.
Before the vote Gusmao complained that some of his coalition’s supporters had been been pelted with stones in the east of the country, while after the vote Alkatiri made some rumblings about wanting a recount.
But the margin was wide, and a few scuffles aside, international observer groups said the vote was fair and praised the local election bodies.
“Although some problems here, some problems there, people didn’t respond to the provocation,” Gusmao said, praising his own voters.
It was the fifth parliamentary election since Timorese independence in 2002, and the third won by Gusmao, who is regarded as the figurehead of the independence movement. He spent almost a decade in Indonesian prisons after more than twenty years in the hills and jungles of East Timor, leading the tiny militia that tried to fight the occupying Indonesian army that invaded in 1975 and only finally controlled the country in 1979.
It was a brutal subjugation, with around 200,000 people dying from famine, disease and Indonesian army atrocities. East Timor’s population today is only 1.3 million people.
Alkatiri was also part of the independence movement, lobbying governments from exile in Mozambique, which, like East Timor, was a Portuguese colony. Alkatiri was East Timor’s first post-independence Prime Minister, but his Fretilin party lost control of government in 2007 after a near civil war in 2006 and after Gusmao left the ceremonial presidency to lead his CNRT to a first parliamentary election win.
And despite blatantly obstructing Alkatiri’s second term as prime minister last year, Gusmao’s status as a national icon was embellished as recently as March when he successfully concluded negotiations that saw East Timor and Australia agree a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea.
Drawing the boundary should facilitate tapping of undersea gas in a field called Greater Sunrise. East Timor is hoping for a windfall worth tens of billions of euro, much-needed revenue for a tiny country that does not, for now, have much of an economy outside oil and gas.
Developing sectors such as tourism and coffee will be one of the main challenges for the incoming administration, as will improving roads, healthcare and education. A drive through the mountains of East Timor might yield a visitor some stunning vistas for posting on Instagram, but it can also mean 10 mile an hour crawls up winding, potholed tracks that are near impassable in the rain.
And those visitor numbers are much lower than a tropical island next door to Australia should be: around 70,000 in 2016, a fraction of the roughly 6 million people that visited Bali in Indonesia last year, an hour and a half flight west.
Gusmao’s previous administrations have been criticised for prioritising big projects, such as an oil and gas terminal on the south coast that will, the Timorese hope, process what is piped from the Timor Sea after the boundary deal with Australia.
But Australia wants the gas piped to Darwin, which already has the facilities to process it, Australia agreed that East Timor could take 80% of the royalties from the field if the Darwin option is used.
If East Timor gets its way and the gas is piped to its south coast, then the royalty share will drop to 70% — a price Gusmao is willing to pay to develop an onshore energy industry and the spin offs that it might generate for the local economy.
But whether the nearly 74 year old Gusmao takes over as prime minister has not been decided, officially at least. He resigned half way through his last term, citing back trouble brought on by decades in the jungle and in jail, and the need to for East Timor to bring on younger leaders.
Sitting beside him at the Tuesday press conference was 61 year old José Maria de Vasconcelos, better known by his nom de geurre Taur Matan Ruak, or Two Sharp Eyes. He was also a prominent and apparently vigilant independence fighter alongside Gusmao, hence the nickname, and was East Timor’s president from 2012 to 2017.
He is possibly an alternative prime minister if Gusmao opts for a less-taxing ministry and to act as the power behind the throne.
“We will wait until after the court announcement confirming the results,” Gusmao said, when I asked who will lead the next government.
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Dili.Show