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Timor 2.0: Reinventing a Republic through Resignations, Reshuffles, and Resilience

February 18, 2015

By Susan Marx

While Japanese prime ministers in recent history have done so with unusual regularity, to voluntarily relinquish the post of prime minister anywhere in the world remains an unusual transition strategy. Yet, this is precisely what occurred in Timor-Leste earlier this month with the resignation of Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the country’s drive for independence and first president. Less than one week after the announcement that the former health minister and deputy prime minister, Dr. Rui Maria de Araujo, would succeed the former guerilla fighter as prime minister of Timor-Leste, and thereby complete the mandate of this government, critics were still pondering the reasoning why a seemingly selfless civil servant would actually submit himself to becoming a bona fide lame duck prime minister. Until he delivered his inaugural speech on Monday, that is.

Timor-Leste graffiti

In citing some of the ongoing challenges facing Timor-Leste today, including its enormous dependency on oil, abject poverty, weak education system, and persistent domestic violence, the new prime minister made it clear that he will hold members of government to a higher standard than they are used to. Photo/Molly Mueller

After months of intrigue and speculation on who’s in and who’s out, Timor-Leste finally emerged with a new, streamlined government led, for the first time in its 13 years of independence, by someone other than a key member of the resistance or “75” generation. On Monday, the Sixth Constitutional Government, led by opposition party member Dr. Rui (as he is popularly known), was sworn in, which, despite months of speculation, surprised many, largely because of Gusmao’s immense popularity.

While there are many familiar names on the roster of the new government, noticeably absent from the top slots are Gusmao, Horta, or Alkatiri. However, one should be cautious in interpreting this as a complete relinquishment of power to the oft-cited younger “99” generation,” a reference to Indonesian occupation ending in 1999. Rather, this is at best an experiment in a “phased transition.”

A critic might say it is a sneaky way for Gusmao, a fervent leader but mediocre manager, plagued by allegations of nepotism, political interference, and corrupt government members, to maintain a firm hand over the country’s financial and natural resources as well as strategic decisions, without any of the messy business of actually having to manage the government. Some suggest that with Gusmao as the country’s inaugural Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment, very little real change will be evident in the government of the incoming prime minister, and Gusmao will, in fact, remain in charge. This assumption is strongly supported by the fact that the entire list of the new government was drafted by Gusmao and not the incoming prime minster.

On the other (more optimistic) hand, the fact that Gusmao recommended a replacement widely heralded for his technocratic capabilities, so-called “incorruptible nature,” and bipartisan appeal (outside a handful of overly ambitious rivals), from the opposition party no less, could indeed be a watershed moment in Timor-Leste’s first real change in leadership since gaining independence from Indonesia nearly 14 years ago. In fact, this could indicate a more strategic approach to transition than was previously imagined, albeit an unorthodox one.

Addressing members of the much-reduced incoming government, including his now infamous predecessor, the president of the republic, members of the diplomatic corps, and Timorese citizens via national television, Dr. Rui made what will arguably be remembered as one of the strongest political speeches in modern Timorese history. After paying due respect to the great liberators of the nation, both past and present, the incoming prime minister indicated his intention to use a “new broom” to effectively clean house a bit.

Citing systemic problems with the preceding government, he hit hard at the issues of corruption, wasteful spending by officials, and a culture of nepotism. What was inspiring, though, was in a political system light on policy platforms and practically devoid of accountability mechanisms, he seemed to commit to both. In citing some of the ongoing challenges facing Timor-Leste today, including its enormous dependency on oil, abject poverty, weak education system, and persistent domestic violence, the new prime minister made it clear that he will hold members of government to a higher standard than they are used to. Now of course the question remains, can he actually deliver?

While the top slot is now occupied by a widely respected technocrat, Gusmao will still wield immense power by controlling vast swaths of the state’s coffers in this resource-rich, accountability-poor island nation. The need to continue overseeing the majority of major projects and investment in the country’s infrastructure and resource relations could be an indication that he is in fact not yet ready or willing to give up power, but rather tired of the administration and the compromise that comes with being a prime minister.

The appointment of Dr. Rui may well be an incredibly smart strategy for affording a slow transition while maintaining hard-fought “stability.” After all, in the dusk of the political careers of the likes of Gusmao, Alkatiri, and Horta, their legacies will depend on keeping Timor-Leste stable, and moving from a potential failed state to a successful developing state. In order to do this, however, they need the next generation to complete the task, making this political move incredibly important.

While implementation is bound to remain messy for some time as the new government battles through the muddy mandates that plague the ministries to the point of incapacitating progress, there is a nascent hope that the recent change signals real progress and potential.

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

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