Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:47 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:47 | SYDNEY

'Team Success' bids for Timorese presidency

16 January 2012 10:45

Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University. He is inTimor-Leste doing research for a book.

The weathered 'Timor-Leste Nippon Cultural Centre' sign outside the whitewashed compound in Dili is a poor indication of what is going on inside. Vehicles whizz in and out the gates and, inside, a fifty-strong army of volunteers scurry around with an air of industry and fervent purpose. The men and women say they work for free and pay their own transport and phone costs.

This is the headquarters of 'Team Success', a rainbow coalition of young activists, resistance fighters, businessmen, sworn enemies, the odd renegade soldier and even one apparently rehabilitated hit squad leader working in common cause for Taur Matan Ruak, former chief of the Timorese army turned presidential candidate in waiting. 

Matan Ruak addresses a crowd in 2005.

Matan Ruak (his full name means 'two sharp eyes' in Tetun) resigned from the Defence Force last year saying he wanted to return to civilian life. He is now aiming to mobilise this unlikely alliance to help him into the highest office in the country as an independent candidate unaffiliated to any political party. The presidential election will take place on 17 March with a run-off the following month if no candidate receives a majority of votes.

The president may not have as much power as the prime minister — parliamentary elections are expected in June — but it is a position of considerable clout.

Matan Ruak fashions himself as a man above politics and someone who will use the space granted to the head of state in the constitution to advance his vision for a better future in a country where, despite high revenues from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, many people continue to live in deep and grinding poverty.

Ruak has many devout followers, and at the centre of his campaign is an individual more accustomed to pestering politicians than working for them. Jose Antonio Belo is a man now on his third act. He was a former trusted messenger for Ruak during the resistance, and was jailed for faxing information about Indonesian atrocities to international human rights groups, before becoming a journalist.

Belo was a long-time editor-in-chief of Tempo Semanal, a boisterous weekly newspaper and website that exposed the petty and not so petty corruptions and abuses of power in the post-independence governments. He has published page after page of allegations about craven civil servants and ministers and tales of missing money, suspicious rice contracts, and apparent contraventions of procurement laws.

One minister even charged him with criminal defamation and tried to throw him in jail. His tough, shared history with the men in the mountains probably acted as his own good luck charm to keep him safe then and now he's repaying the debt to a man he says has clean hands, a clear mind and the nation's best interest at heart.

Matan Ruak's chief political adviser looks like a person just as likely be found waxing intellectual in a lecture theatre as spearheading an electoral campaign. In his early thirties, Fidelis Magalhaes was educated at leading universities in London, Lisbon and Hawaii and has deferred his PhD in international relations in Australia to work on this campaign. His job is to help prepare the manifesto and prep the candidate on a range of political issues.

On the surface, he seems an unlikely adviser to a military man, but he avers that Matan Ruak is not your traditional commander. He likes to listen and relishes debate and people disagreeing with him, attributes that are extremely unusual in this deeply hierarchical political culture.

Eduardo Soares Belo and Gregorio Saldanha complete the campaign administration. Eduardo is a former guerrilla fighter, current head of the country's largest private security firm and leading businessmen; Indonesia jailed Gregorio for many years for helping organise the 12 November 1991 demonstration, which became infamous throughout the world as the Santa Cruz Massacre.

Other supporters are odd bedfellows. Some of the former soldiers who mutinied against Matan Ruak in 2006 are helping out his campaign in some rural districts, as is Rai Los, the former head of a shady paramilitary force. Belo claims that other groups which still do not necessarily like each other are reconciling for the purpose of supporting Matan Ruak's candidature. The involvement of these men is a powerful psychological communication of forgiveness, says Magalhaes, a way of stitching together recent wounds in a still traumatized society. The two men say that supporters of political parties are peeling away from their traditional groupings to support Ruak.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the campaign mimics a classic move in US politics: run as a fresh-faced newcomer no matter how much of an insider you actually are. Taur Matan Ruak is outside the system now but he has been a central figure in Timorese politics long before independence in May 2002. He was the last commander of FALINTIL fighters and the first leader of the Timorese Defence Force; he is 'a highly respected leader' according to a leaked US embassy cable published by Wikileaks. This may be his first tilt for elected office but he is a consummate insider.

It will be a crowded pack. Other reputed runners in the race include Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres; Speaker of the National Parliament Fernando 'La Sama' de Araujo; ageing eminence Francisco Xavier Amaral, who was president during Timor-Leste's short-lived independence in 1975; and Rogerio Lobato, the former minister of the interior jailed for illegally distributing weapons in 2006 to none other than Mr Rai Los.

FRETILIN, the largest party in the parliament, has nominated Francisco Guterres, 'Lu Olo', another man with strong resistance credentials and who was pipped at the post during the last campaign. So far there is only one female candidate, Angela Freitas, who says Matan Ruak should be barred from running because the 2006 UN Commission of Inquiry recommended that he be prosecuted for distributing weapons to civilians (the case was subsequently dropped because the prosecutor determined there was a lack of evidence). More candidates are expected to join the race soon. President Jose Ramos-Horta has yet to decide whether he will compete; he says his supporters have gathered 100,000 signatures urging him to run.

In the absence of polling, it is impossible to know how each candidate stacks up against the others.

For 'Team Success' the future is not assured. Active and dynamic coalitions can whip up enthusiasm and support but also have the potential to quickly become uncontrollable, squabbling messes. Volunteers eventually need to get recompensed and the initial innocent lustre of any campaign could get quickly tarnished in the no-holds-barred world of Timorese politics. One MP has spoken of having received death threats in connection with the presidential campaign. Candidates can over-promise and leave their followers frustrated.

But these are all problems for the future. On this sunny day in Dili, the 'Team Success' dream remains pristine.

Photo by Flickr user Rui Miguel da Silva Pinto.