On 26 June 2006, the embattled prime minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, announced his resignation amid the worst crisis the world's second-youngest nation-state has faced since it became independent on 20 May 2002. The unrest had led to the deaths of thirty-eight people and created nearly 100,000 internal refugees.
The day of Alkatiri's resignation which happened to be the morrow of the independence day of Mozambique, the Lusophone country where the former leader had spent twenty-four years in exile frenetic negotiations began for the choice of a new prime minister. On 8 July, after two weeks of intensive negotiations, the choice of Josè Ramos Horta the country's long-term foreign minister and (since the first week of June 2006) defence minister assumed his third senior role as head of government of the troubled nation.
His nomination was widely welcomed by East Timor's most influential institutions such as the Catholic church (including senior bishops), President Xanana Gusmao (who his reported to have insisted on his appointment), and members of the leading Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin) party. The international political and media reaction was also positive, reflecting relief at the apparent easing of the crisis and respect for Ramos Horta's long-standing role as (along with President Xanana Gusmao) a figurehead of East Timor's long campaign for independence during the twenty-seven years of Indonesian occupation.
At the same time, expectations of a rapid end to the problems of East Timor (Timor-Leste in Portuguese, Timor Lorosa'e in the main indigenous language, Tetum) may turn out to be misplaced for many challenges lie ahead in the short and long term.
Loro Horta earned degrees at Sydney University and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He worked in Mozambique for several years, and served as an advisor to East Timor's defence department. He is the son of East Timor's former foreign minister and current prime minister, José Ramos Horta. The views expressed in his openDemocracy articles are his own.
Also by Loro Horta in openDemocracy:
"East Timor: a nation divided" (9 June 2006)
Loro Horta writes elsewhere on the crisis of May-June 2006 in East Timor:
"East Timor riots expose a political divide" (Asia Times, 18 May 2006)
"As East Timor burns" (Asia Times, 27 May 2006)
Lukeno Ribeiro Alkatiri, the son of East Timor's former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, writes a response to the latter article; see "The voice of the Timorese people" (Asia Times, 1 June 2006)
The changing of the guard
There is no doubt that Josè Ramos Horta is a far more consensual figure than Mari Alkatiri. But the former prime minister remains Fretilin's secretary-general, and will continue to exert influence over the largest and best-organised party in East Timor.
Moreover, Fretilin dominates the current caretaker government which Ramos Horta now heads, and will continue to serve until fresh elections scheduled for April or May 2006. Two Fretilin members are deputy prime ministers, and took the oath of office beside Ramos Horta when he was installed on 9 July; one of them (Estanislao da Silva, minister for agriculture) is a close Alkatiri ally and someone who in the past has criticised Ramos Horta very harshly.
Meanwhile, Ramos Horta faces a difficult choice in relation to the 2007 elections. Will he stand for election, and under what circumstances by returning to the Fretilin party he and Gusmao resigned from (as many of its members want) or alongside Gusmao in a new party? It is likely that Alkatiri, who recovered some of its lost popularity by resigning and thus helping contain the burgeoning unrest, will dedicate his own efforts to the party and to its success in the elections.
Mari Alkatiri is a complex figure whose combination of remarkable organisational skills, insensitivity, patriotic zeal and consistency of character have earned him great reserves of both loyalty and enmity. His political abilities are unquestioned: in the 2005 regional elections, Fretilin annihilated East Timor's incompetent opposition by winning in all but one of the thirty-two regions. As long as Alkatiri remains in control of Fretilin he will remain a formidable force
Thus, unless Ramos Horta returns to Fretilin or makes an effective alliance with Xanana Gusmao (with the tacit support of the Catholic church), Alkatiri may again be able to mobilise Fretilin's near-mythical powers to compensate for his flaws and win re-election. In this event, East Timor may face a recurrence of crisis, perhaps one of even greater proportions.
A way to avoid this outcome would be for Fretilin's central committee to convene new elections for the party leadership by secret ballot, rather than the controversial show of hands in which Alkatiri was elected in May 2005. In such a case, the more moderate Josè Luis Guterres may be able to replace Alkatiri as party leader.
Josè Luis Guterres is East Timor's successor to Ramos Horta as foreign minister, a close friend of Xanana Gusmao and Ramos Horta himself who also enjoys good relations with the Catholic church. If Xanana and Ramos Horta maintain their pledge to remain independent political figures, Guterres may be the most promising candidate for the prime ministership.
Such political calculations reflect how finely-balanced East Timor's situation has become in the aftermath of a traumatic crisis. Alkatiri's sustaining power was vividly illustrated on the day he resigned, when 10,000 of his supporters mobilised and marched on Dili. This was in the face of large-scale intimidation of party members that had included the burning of houses belonging to Fretilin central-committee members.
The party and the people
In this light, José Ramos Horta will have to ponder his next moves very carefully. In the short term he will have to deal with the disgruntlement of the dozens of groups that came together to oppose Alkatiri. They range from rebel soldiers, disaffected police officers, former pro-Indonesian militias, opportunistic politicians and organised gangs.
Many of these groups, which claimed to be fighting for President Gusmao, have their own dubious agendas. This was clearly demonstrated on 7 June, when one rebel Marcos Tilman gave Gusmao fifteen days to dissolve parliament and call new elections or "face the fury of the Timorese people".
People like Tilman and other candidates from among the petty warlords have the potential to cause further unrest. The majority of ordinary soldiers who rebelled against Alkatiri may have been motivated by an instinct to right perceived injustice, but their leaders organised under banners such as the "peace, unity and justice commissions" which are reminiscent of warlord-led groups in Sierra Leone or Liberia often pursue less noble ambitions.
There is a further problem of missing firearms belonging to the now-defunct Timorese national police. Around 4,000 weapons many of them high-calibre machine-guns such as M-16s are still unaccounted for, and could be in the hands of former militias and pro-Indonesian forces who had been allowed to join East Timor's police force through a combination of Xanana's well-intentioned strategy of national reconciliation and poor planning by the United Nations.
The individuals who hold these weapons are trained and organised: centrally-directed gangs rather than a bunch of thugs wandering around, looting and burning. The commander of the Australian forces sent to stabilise the situation stated that many of their attacks were not random, but rather being coordinated through the former police radio network. These groups may prove as much a danger to Xanana Gusmao and Josè Ramos Horta as they were to Alkatiri.
All the problems of instability are shadowed by high levels of unemployment in East Timor perhaps 50% nationwide, and 80% in the capital, Dili. Alongside the proliferation of firearms and the widespread culture of organised gangs, this provides ready opportunities for would-be leaders to exploit East Timor's troubled situation.
The same groups that precipitated the crisis that led to Mari Alkatiri's resignation could undermine the country's stability regardless of who is prime minister. The 57- year-old Josè Ramos Horta, Nobel peace prize winner and the nation's voice in the world for three decades, will need all the help he can get to steer his collapsing nation in the difficult times ahead.