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Politics

East Timor hero Gusmao unseats government in election

Southeast Asian nation looks for stability after year under minority coalition

East Timor independence icon and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao appears at his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party headquarters shortly after voting closed. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

DILI -- A three-party alliance led by Timorese independence hero Xanana Gusmao ousted the short-lived Fretilin minority government in East Timor's election held Saturday, though the top party in the ruling coalition refused to concede the outcome late Sunday.

Gusmao and his allies won 49.59% of the vote, according to official figures released Sunday, with only a few ballots left to be counted. That gives the Alliance of Change for Progress 34 seats in the Southeast Asian country's 65-member parliament, a fragile majority.

Gusmao's alliance, which emerged as the Parliamentary Majority Alliance -- or AMP -- to oppose the Fretilin-led government formed last year under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, claimed before the vote that it could win up to 43 seats.

Fretilin, or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, appears headed for only 23 seats -- equaling its total from the July 2017 election -- despite receiving 34.18% of the vote, nearly 5 points higher than its result last year. Alkatiri, Fretilin's leader, said after voting Saturday that he expected his party to win at least 30 seats.

Fretilin did not concede after the official results became clear on Sunday night, complaining of what it termed "irregularities."

Fretilin's coalition partner, the Democratic Party, saw its share of the vote drop by nearly 2 points, a slump that likely will cost the PD two of the seven seats it won in 2017.

The outcome suggests that last year's election loss was a temporary blip for Gusmao after his victories in 2007 and 2012. Fretilin and Alkatiri took power after a landslide win in 2002, but lost narrowly in 2007 to Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, a new party at the time.

Supporters of Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction watch election results on television May 13. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Gusmao served as East Timor's first president after independence in 2002, but he left the ceremonial position to run for prime minister after the country nearly suffered a civil war in 2006.

Gusmao won a second five-year term as prime minister in 2012, but resigned in the middle of that period. He invited Fretilin's Rui de Araujo to take over as prime minister in early 2015 as part of a unity government with Fretilin. But that collaboration appears unlikely to be repeated after Gusmao and his allies forced an early election.

The AMP may announce details of its government Monday, said a CNRT official who requested anonymity. It remains to be seen whether Gusmao will take the prime minister's post, and a repeat of the deal when he stood down in 2016 would see him opt for the development ministry. The likeliest alternative for prime minister is Taur Matan Ruak, a former president and current leader of the People's Liberation Party, one of the three AMP parties. 

Gusmao is seen as a national father figure, and the 74-year-old likely will be highly influential in any such arrangement, similar to the roles played by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad after they retired from leading governments in Singapore and Malaysia, respectively. Mahahir returned to power in Malaysia at the age of 92 after a shock election win last week.

The result should give East Timor a stable government after a year of stasis following the 2017 election in which Fretilin's minority administration was unable to govern. The election also may end the revolving door through which the prime minister's job has mostly rotated between Alkatiri and Gusmao since Timorese independence in 2002.

The government, which depends on oil and gas for around 90% of its revenue, faces challenges in boosting employment and developing other sectors of the economy. About 70% of the country's 1.3 million people depend on agriculture.

Voter Maria de Sousa said on Saturday that she hoped the next government would be able to stay in office.

"It is better that we have a system that gets things done," she said, an aspiration echoed by others lining up to vote in Dili, the capital.

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