East Timor’s weekend elections expected to end political gridlock

Voters in East Timor will go to the polls on Saturday after President Francisco Guterres dissolved Parliament in January, seen here. (AFP)
Updated 10 May 2018
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East Timor’s weekend elections expected to end political gridlock

JAKARTA: Voters in East Timor will go to the polls on Saturday after President Francisco Guterres dissolved Parliament in January because the minority government led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri failed to secure approval for his government’s budget and program.
The elections will be the second in less than a year and are expected to produce a clear winner to end a political gridlock that hampers development for a population of 1.2 million.
It was the first time in East Timor’s 15 years of independence that the Parliament was dissolved, Arif Abdullah Sagran, a former member of East Timor’s election commission, told Arab News in an interview during a recent visit in Jakarta.
The two political blocks are competing to secure at least 35 seats in the 65-member Parliament to form a majority government.
“This will be a hotly-contested election. We will not have political stablity if none of them is able to win at least 35 seats,” Julio Tomas Pinto, a political science professor at the National University of East Timor, told Arab News.
Alkatiri’s Fretilin party narrowly won the July 2017 elections with 23 seats, followed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the party led by first president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao, which won 22 seats.
But the two political giants were on opposing sides and the Fretilin formed a minority government with the Democrats, which had seven seats, while Gusmao’s CNRT went into coalition with the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which had eight seats, and the Khunto party, which had five seats, forming a majority in the Parliament.
Pinto said that the CNRT, PLP and Khunto have been campaigning under a new banner, the Alianca Mudanca ba Progresso, or Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP), and the alliance could win the election if the three parties can maintain the same results as last year’s elections.
He added that public perception seemed to favor Xanana’s CNRT as the winner, while Sagran said support from the grassroots for the Fretilin looked strong.
“But there is no guarantee, we have too much floating mass,” said Pinto, who served as secretary of state for defense from 2007 to 2015.
According to data from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), there are 784,286 voters and 48 percent of them are women.
The number of eligible voters are roughly the same as last year’s amount, which saw voters not showing up at voting booths.

 

“We hope voters turnout will be higher this time,” Pinto said, adding that democracy in one of the world’s youngest nation was being tested with the upcoming elections, which he said would set an example for the younger generation.
Gusmao and Alkatiri are two of the most prominent figures in East Timor, which gained its independence in 2002 after it voted to end Indonesia’s 24-year occupation in a referendum in 1999.
The two political lions have dominated East Timor’s politics and both served as the country’s president and prime minister. Caretaker Prime Minister Alkatiri, a Muslim leader of Yemeni descent in a Catholic-majority country, served as the country’s first prime minister in 2002-2006, alongside Gusmao who served as the country’s first president in 2002-2007. The latter also served as prime minister in 2007-2015.
Pinto said members of CNRT and its coalition were mainly former resistance guerillas who fought during Indonesia’s occupation while Fretilin members were mostly diplomats who had been abroad advocating for East Timor’s independence.
“However, we don’t want to contradict the two of them because both forces are assets for East Timor. This election will be a test case of our elite’s political maturity,” Pinto said. 

 

“The people are fed up with the elite’s arrogance. When (the opposition) directly rejected the government’s budget without even deliberating, it was clearly harsh politics and I think the people were quite disappointed with that,” said Sagran, who is president of the Center of East Timor Islamic Community, and like Alkatiri is one of the few Muslim figures who have held positions as government officials in East Timor.
Xanana is enjoying a boost in his popularity after he served as chief negotiator during negotiations with neighboring Australia that resulted in the signing of a treaty on maritime borders between the two countries in March. The treaty promises major revenue sharing with Australia from exploitation of rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
According to East Timor’s Maritime Boundary Office, the permanent maritime boundaries served as “the final step in realizing full sovereign rights” for East Timor as a newly independent state since the seas which surround the island sustain its people and are integral to their culture and livelihoods.
If CNRT wins the elections, Xanana could assume another premiership but Sagran said Xanana could appoint someone else from within the coalition ranks as prime minister.
Pinto said that the elections could also be a test of the country’s constitution, which he said was adapted from its former colonizer Portugal.
He said there were articles in the constitution that did not have detailed explanation, such as the deadline to propose the second budget to the Parliament if the first one was rejected. This means each party could interpret them in accordance with their own interests.
“We will see if our constitution will really fit with our people or just be a copy from the Portuguese, which is not entirely implementable here,” Pinto said.

Decoder

East Timor

East Timor is a secular country, although the Catholic church has a big influence in the society. Muslims make up about 0.3 percent of the population. The national language is Tetum and the official one is Portuguese, while English and Indonesian are widely spoken. The country’s official name is the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

FASTFACTS

East Timor

East Timor is a parliamentary republic and has a unicameral Parliament which serves for a five-year term. It is a half-island nation that covers a 15,007 km square area located on the eastern part of Timor Island. It borders with Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province on the western part of the island and shares a maritime border with Australia to the south in the Timor Sea.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.