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Will Timor-Leste’s Elections Result in a Grand Coalition?

July 11, 2012

By Silas Everett

On Saturday, July 7, Timor-Leste’s parliamentary elections took place in a peaceful political environment. The provisional results from the State Technical Body for Administration of the Elections show only four of the 21 political parties on the ballot are going to go through to parliament. They are led by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) with 30 seats, followed by FRETILIN with 25 seats, then Partido Democratico (PD) with eight seats, and Frenti Mudansa with two seats. This represents a significant consolidation of power as the previous parliament had nine parties and one independent.

Observers in red shirts monitor the ballot counting by State Technical Body for Administration of the Elections, in pink shirts. Photo: Silas Everett

When compared to the 2007 parliamentary elections, following the large scale social unrest of the 2006 Crisis which had caused the FRETILIN government to collapse, the recent elections provide much reason for celebration and hope. However, heavy lifting also lies ahead. First, a government must be formed over the next month or two without sowing the seeds of future conflict. Second, once formed, the new government must quickly demonstrate how it is going to build the necessary social infrastructure that will support broad-based economic development, which is so much needed in the country. For this, Timor-Leste’s leadership must balance the need to decentralize services with the need to restrict wastage in public spending. In order to succeed, greater attention is required to ensure that such expenditures fit within the envelope of the country’s finite oil revenues, balanced against the political calculations required for further consolidation of peace and stability. It is arguable that most important elections for the country are actually to take place in 2017, the next round of planned national elections.

Coming into Saturday’s elections, both CNRT and FRETILIN needed to increase their number of seats from 18 and 21, respectively, to 33 in order to form a majority government on their own. Pundits were almost unanimous that the elections would not produce a simple majority. The results of the election affirmed their thinking. It is expected that over the next two to three weeks there will be considerable negotiations within and between the four parties over the formation of a coalition government. There are three plausible coalition scenarios, all of which include CNRT: (1) CNRT-PD, (2) CNRT-FRETILIN, and (3) CNRT-Frenti Mudansa. Due to major political rivalries, a FRETILIN-PD coalition is considered by many not to be plausible; thus a non-CNRT coalition is also not considered plausible.

Most pundits, including most international Timor-Leste watchers, believed going into the elections that a CNRT-PD coalition was the likely outcome. The results of the elections appear to have largely justified this view. The merits of such a coalition are that Xanana Gusmao (CNRT) would retain the prime minister post, and would have the opportunity to carry out his 20-year vision for economic growth and social wellbeing described in his Strategic Development Plan. The downside is that CNRT would be bound to PD, which is potentially a weak coalition partner in its own right as most all of PD’s MPs are reported to be under investigation on corruption charges.

In the run up to the elections few pundits believed that a coalition between CNRT and FRETILIN was possible, mostly citing personal conflicts between Mari Alkatiri (FRETILIN) and Xanana Gusmao (CNRT). However, almost all still acknowledged this as a possible scenario even if a long shot. The advantage of this scenario is a government of national unity, which is arguably needed to implement the Strategic Development Plan – the only clear plan put forth by the leadership for the country’s development. Under a CNRT-FRETILIN coalition, insiders say that responsibility for security and stability would be retained by Xanana’s camp, whereas finance and administration would be placed within FRETILIN’s camp. Control of the Ministry of Finance and big spending is likely to be the critical point for any negotiations between the two parties.

Several hundred votes are currently said to be disputed. These votes will be challenged for the next week. It is possible that Frenti Mudansa may pick up another seat, which would mostly come from FRETILIN. In this case, Frenti Mudansa would have three seats and CNRT 30. Together they would reach the 33 seats needed for a majority. While on the surface this would appear to produce a government with a relatively weak mandate, PD is unlikely to vote with FRETILIN, providing CNRT-Frenti Mudansa an additional buffer.

Over the next weeks there will likely be considerable negotiations within and between the four parties over the formation of government. The official, final election results are due to be out by Thursday. The first sitting of parliament is expected to take place by August 13. Before this time it is expected that the current President, Tuar Matan Ruak, will ask CNRT to form a government. Much of TMR’s actions will be interpreted through the 2007 experience of forming a government. At that time, FRETILIN, with the plurality, was unable to form a government after six weeks of protracted negotiations and about turns. The then President Jose Ramos Horta asked CNRT to form a government, which resulted in a five-party coalition.

Regardless of the eventual coalition, it is important that any negotiations between CNRT and FRETILIN are amicably resolved. This will be paramount for stability in the country. FRETILIN needs to be able to achieve concessions from CNRT significant enough to appease party cadres particularly in the three eastern districts – Lautem, Viqueque, and Baucau. The worst case scenario is that pockets of violence erupt despite attempts for control from the central level. In such a case, there is the potential of contagion to the capital via individual vendettas, re-engagement of martial arts groups, and other means of political violence. Imaginations can draw on the last 10 years during which there have been incidents of political violence in the country. Such an outcome would surely set back the clock of development and dash any immediate hopes of attracting foreign investment and attaining ASEAN membership. While the “breakdown in violence” scenario is very unlikely and falls foul of the too-often-used “security and stability lens” to analyze the country, given the potential danger posed by such a threat of political violence, it is important to remain vigilant as the government is formed over the next month.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Elections, Good Governance


  1. Just a minor correction- FRENTI-Mudanca obtained two seats, NOT four as asserted.

    • Francisco – Thanks for bringing this mistake to our attention. We have corrected it in the current version. Thanks again, Alma Freeman.


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