There were eight candidates but just one outsider who figured in the election campaign for the referendum on19 March 2017 to have a new president (the sixth) in the small republic of East Timor, the second Catholic stronghold in Asia after the Philippines. Suspended between Asia and Oceania and, even more so by its uncertain future fifteen years after independence, its people had the opportunity to concretise that minimum of stability guaranteed by a figure of mediation without whom autonomous development and real independence are unthinkable.
At the heart of this possibility is the personality of Francisco ‘Lú-Olo’ Guterres, 62, and former guerrilla leader from the time of the more than twenty-year conflict with Indonesia, which succeeded the old Portuguese power in 1976 and was forced to abandon its hold on the country after a referendum in 1999, due to international pressure. He received 57.1% of the votes with a turnout of 69% of the 744,613 people registered. It was a significant vote that enabled him to avoid an April ballot and opened to him the door to the five-year presidency that started on 20 May. The result augurs well for the avoidance of conflict and difficulties in the electoral context of next July for elections to the single-house parliament.
Guterres was fully supported by FRETILIN, the party that has inherited the main independence movement during the years of Portuguese and, later, Indonesian occupation, but also by Xanana Gusmão – another historical leader of the independence movement – distanced from any party role, but since 2015 the premier of a government which, besides FRETILIN, also includes the small Democratic Party whose candidate, seeking the post of head of State, the 53 year-old António da Conceição, the present minister of Education, is the other rising star of the second generation of post-independence.
Coming from the ranks of the guerrillas makes Guterres an element of continuity with the past, his role in the two previous legislatures makes him a trusted politician and his age and experience render him capable of broad dialogue with the political and social powers. He is even more capable of opening the way to generational exchange in local power, hitherto monopolised by well-known figures and some – such as José Ramos-Horta, ex-president and Nobel Prize-winner for Peace in 1996 for his non-violent commitment to independence, together with the former Apostolic Administrator of Dili, Msgr. Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo – who enjoy international prestige.
Though the post of President of East Timor is not one that carries any great power, it is certainly the institutional reference point in times of crisis. This is the permanent condition of the small territory of only 15,410 Km2 comprising two parts, east and west, with a total population of 1.261 million and a social system divided into clans, ethnic groups, interests, feuds, faiths and languages.
The country came into existence officially in May 2002 but its major currency is still the American dollar while its economy is sustained by international help and economic resources, diminishing due to the inability to elaborate an administration policy with potential international partners for the vast deposits of offshore gas and oil. In this situation, the international protectorate has played a preponderant role, paving the way for infrastructure and education but also for disaffection and indifference among the ordinary population. So, too, nearby Australia which helped liberate East Timor and bring stability in the years following independence, claims a major role in the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, especially those offshore. (S.V.)