Xanana Gusmão, East Timor’s recently retired president and leader of the resistance during Indonesia’s occupation, appeared set Tuesday night to become prime minister in spite of his party coming second in last week’s general election.
Politicians and foreign observers said Mr Gusmao’s National Congress of East Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) was likely to be the largest member of a four-party coalition.
If this materialises it would represent a massive defeat for Fretilin, the ruling party, which was also trounced in May’s direct presidential election.
Mr Gusmão’s appointment would also be a boost for the United Nations, which oversaw East Timor from 1999 until 2002. Until last year the UN had hailed East Timor as a successful experiment in nation-building, only for the tiny nation to collapse into anarchy over political and social unrest. Foreign peacekeepers, 1,200 UN police and a new UN mission were deployed to help restore order.
Fretilin is opposed to a big UN role in the latest reconstruction, while Mr Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta, the new, largely ceremonial, president, support the world body’s long-term presence.
Fretilin is almost certain to finish first among the 14 parties that contested Saturday’s ballot, with just over 25 per cent of the vote. But it has no meaningful allies to enable it to form a government.
“Yes, it does appear that Xanana is going to be the next prime minister,” Deonisio Babo, CNRT’s secretary-general, said. “None of the political leaders has met formally yet but the conversations over cups of tea indicate that he will lead the coalition.”
CNRT’s most likely partners are the Democrat party (PD), a grouping called the ASDT-PSD and Undertim. Together they are expected to win about 39 of the 65 parliamentary seats.
Mr Babo did not rule out a Fretilin presence in government. “If Fretilin can change its leadership quickly then I can see the possibility of it joining under Xanana.”
Fretilin officials are declining to comment until the result is declared, possibly in the next few days. Prior to polling, party officials were saying they would prefer to be in opposition than a junior member of a coalition.
Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and election monitor, played down the lack of formal coalition talks. “The coalition has basically been agreed. It’s just the horse-trading over seats that’s not yet complete,” he said.
Diplomats say the only realistic way Mr Gusmão would not become prime minister was if Fretilin could prise the deeply divided Democrat party away from the CNRT-led coalition. “Half of PD are anti-CNRT so rumours of a coalition with Fretilin are swirling, but I think that in the long run PD will fall in with the coalition,” a diplomat said.