Jose Ramos-Horta wins East Timorese presidency, promises political stability

Despite a landslide victory, José Ramos-Horta will need to deal with heightened polarization in a politically fractured country

April 23, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Jose Ramos-Horta wins the East Timorese presidential election for the second time by a landslide. (Photo: Reuters)

Jose Ramos-Horta won the presidential election in East Timor by a landslide as the final results of the second round were announced on Thursday, April 21. In the second round held on April 19, Ramos-Horta faced off against incumbent president Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres. He had earlier been president from 2007-12.

“I have received this mandate from our people, from the nation in an overwhelming demonstration of our people’s commitment to democracy,” Ramos-Horta told supporters at a public rally in the capital, Dili, proclaiming his victory.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work during East Timor’s independence struggle, will be inaugurated on May 20, which will also mark the 20th anniversary of East Timor or Timor-Leste’s independence from Indonesia.

With a turnout of 75%, Ramos-Horta secured 62.09% of the votes in the second round. He was the candidate of the center-left National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) led by Xanana Gusmão, who served as the country’s first president and later its longest serving prime minister.

Ramos-Horta’s nearest opponent, President Guterres of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), won 37.91% of the votes. Ramos-Horta had held a significant lead over all other candidates, having secured 46.6% of the votes in the first round of the election, far ahead of Guterres who came second with 22.13%.

The election comes in the backdrop of years of political polarization and tensions between the two largest political parties, the CNRT and Fretilin. Both parties have dominated East Timorese politics since at least 2007. Before independence, Ramos-Horta and Gusmão had worked with Fretilin, which was the leading movement in East Timor’s struggle for independence and has a left-wing history.

CNRT was founded by Gusmão and Ramos-Horta in 2007, after they fell out with Fretilin during the attempted coup of 2006 and the massive civil unrest that followed. Before the falling out, Fretilin had supported Gusmão’s presidency, while Ramos-Horta served as a foreign minister in the largely Fretilin cabinet led by independent East Timor’s first prime minister Mari Alkatiri.

As political violence spread in 2006, Alkatiri resigned after a stand-off with Gusmão and was replaced by Ramos-Horta as prime minister. In the following general election of 2007, Ramos-Horta won the presidency to succeed Gusmão, while the latter became the prime minister in a coalition government led by CNRT.

The differences between Fretilin and Gusmão led to increasing violence and bouts of political crisis in the fledgling democracy. A brief period of peace and reconciliation was witnessed in 2017, when CNRT supported Guterres’ presidential bid.

But the alliance soon came undone over differences in cabinet formation, leading to snap polls in which a coalition led by CNRT emerged as a clear winner. The rest of Guterres’ term was marked by tensions between the presidency and the parliament.

Ramos-Horta, who went into retirement after his failed re-election bid in 2012, returned to politics over the rising political instability under Guterres. His returning campaign focused on a promise to bridge political differences and to pave the way for dialogue across the political spectrum.

Talking to his supporters, Ramos-Horta also added that he will “pursue dialogue, patiently, relentlessly, to find common ground to find solutions to the challenges this country faces.” But despite promises of working towards stability, many are concerned that Ramos-Horta’s promise of pushing for fresh parliamentary elections shortly after his inauguration could add more political uncertainty. 

Apart from political stability his key campaign focus was on poverty alleviation and stabilizing supply shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to estimates, 42% of the country’s population live below the poverty line.

Ramos-Horta had also promised to expand free healthcare services for mothers and children, to stem the growing youth unemployment rate that stood at 32.9% as per the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) last known estimate in 2016, and to have East Timor become a member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).