Leadership transition in Timor-Leste: Some most recent lessons from Indonesia

Edio Guterres

Timor-Leste has been overwhelmed by discussions over the Government reshuffle and more broadly leadership transition in the last week or two. In fact it’s been an ON-and-OFF public discussion subject ever since Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao rolled the ball in mid 2013. The last few days have seen the discussion intensified with the Prime Minister apparently showed seriousness and being more assertive about the cabinet reshuffle. A parallel hot topic of discussion has been the resignation of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Both subjects made headlines on the streets, in the households and social media in Timor-Leste when the subject resurfaced at the end of last year when in his end of year message, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao called on this cabinet members and ruling coalition partners to brace themselves for a “drastic restructuring” of the government.

On 5 February 2015, Prime Minister Gusmao wrote to President Taur Matan Ruak tendered his resignation from the office of Prime Minister. Former President of Republic, Jose Ramos Horta, has since confirmed that Xanana’s resignation is part of the leadership transition the country’s founding fathers; the so called “75 generation” have been talking about, even before the 2012 general elections. It was made public yesterday that Dr. Rui Maria Araujo has been nominated by the most voted party, CNRT, to lead the next government, which is to be sworn-in early next week.

Interestingly enough, while Timor-Leste is consumed by the questions of reshuffle and leadership transition, the country’s giant neighbor to the North, and former occupier, Indonesia has been preoccupied in the last few weeks with “post-transitional” issues as Indonesia’s new government under the leadership of President Joko Widodo “Jokowi” embarks on implementing its electoral promises. Just as the enthusiasm and hope for change were high in Indonesia last year when Jokowi finally confirmed he would run at the Presidential elections, enthusiasm and hope for better is high in the Timorese society now that Rui Araujo has confirmed he would take on the challenge of replacing Xanana Gusmao.

While Indonesia and Timor-Leste are two distinct countries for a different number of reasons, the interesting recent experience in Indonesia does offer some valuable lessons for Timor-Leste, particularly as the country embarks on the very important course of leadership transition. In fact President Jokowi’s recent political maneuvers and challenges offer valuable lessons for the successor of Xanana Gusmao.

The “Jokowi Phenomenon”

President Jokowi has been a media darling in Indonesia and polling high on almost all opinion polls in Indonesia thanks to his personality and pproaches of dialogue, humble human being and his popular “blusukan” visits (entering a place to meeting people where nobody wants to go) as the Mayor of Solo in Central Java. These personal characters and leadership style mainly brought him to be elected into the governorship of Indonesia’s capital, traditions which he continued while in office as Governor of Jakarta. He was running, at both the elections of Mayor for Solo and Governor of Jakarta, under the flag of PDI Perjuangan (PDIP – Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) led by influential Megawati Soekarno Putri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father President Soekarno.

He was again fielded by the same party, with support of a coalition, as Presidential candidate at last year’s Indonesian Presidential elections. While the party’s support was crucial for his candidacy and election victory, his grassroots support was also a determinant factor in his election to Indonesia’s top post. In fact Jokowi’s high popularity at the opinion polls swayed Megawati to nominate him as PDIP’s presidential candidate.


Almost in a total reverse of the high hope and enthusiasm leading to his election last year, President Jokowi’s reputation of soft but firm appears to be in serious challenge in the last few weeks. Some observers dub this the “real political test” of Jokowi while critics have even gone further refreshing a pre-election label the camp of his competitor at the Presidential elections used against him during the electoral campaign; “Presiden Boneka” – puppet President. A number of unpopular, and in some cases, inconsistent policies in the early days of his Presidency have bought Jokowi this reputational test. It appears that public political assertions of his political patrons contribute to this too, but his own indecisiveness is a no less fueling factor.

At the time when intensive discussions within the PDIP and negotiations with other parties were underway to field him as Presidential candidate, Jokowi resorted to ambiguous tactics in his public communication. He did, in fact, stick to this communication tactics very much to the end. On different occasions prior to his nomination as presidential candidate being made public when confronted by the media about his candidacy, he would utter such words as “ngak tahu (I don’t know), ngak mikir (I don’t think about it)”, or even telling journalists it was Megawati’s business saying “tanya ke Ibu Ketua Umum (ask head of the party), Ibu Mega yang tahu (Megawati who knows this).”

On 14 May 2014 at the ceremony to declare Joko Widodo as the presidential candidate of PDIP and its alliance in Jakarta, Megawati Soekarno Putri made a statement, which would reverberate throughout the campaign period for Jokowi and even shortly after he took office as President. In her speech, Mega stressed that even after the elections, Jokowi “would be a petugas partai (many interpreted as the courier of PDIP) who should implement what the party assigns him to.” The tag “Presiden Boneka” or Puppet President for Joko Widodo was in fact coined largely as a consequence of this statement. This didn’t stop there however. As late as 3 February 2015, Puan Maharani, daughter of Megawati and a high office holder of PDIP, who notably serves under Jokowi as the Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, was quoted as reiterating that Jokowi remains a Petugas Partai of PDIP.


Soon after taking office, Jokowi’s government had to face the dilemma of reducing or maintaining the fuel subsidy. Amidst the rapid drop of global oil price, Jokowi’s government decided on 18 November 2014 to reduce oil subsidy, consequently raising fuel prices. The price has since undergone a number of iterations to adjust to the falling oil price in the global market. On his inauguration day, 20 October, President Joko Widodo promised he would announce his cabinet two days later. However, he missed his self-imposed deadline by a further 4 days. One of the reasons offered for this delay was the involvement of the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the PPATK (the Center for Reporting and Analysis of Financial Transactions) in the selection process of his cabinet members. The other reason was obviously negotiations with his sponsored parties over cabinet make-up.

On 20 November 2014, President Joko Widodo inaugurated NASDEM politician HM Prasetyo as Indonesia’s new Attorney General. Prateyo’s appointment attracted criticisms for two reasons; he was a politician and his selection did not include KPK and PPATK, which marked one of the first breaks with Jokowi’s electoral promise of having non-political individuals at the helm of Law Enforcement institutions. Within his own cabinet, the Coordinating Minister for politics, Justice and defense Tedjo EdhyPurdijatno is a politician from the same party as Prasetyo.

On 9 January 2015, Jokowi sent a letter soliciting Parliamentary approval for the three star general Budi Gunawan to be the new head of Indonesian police, KAPOLRI. Gunawan, who is close to Megawati Soekarno Putri, undertook the fit and proper test at the parliament on 13 January and was approved at a Parliamentary plenary session the following day. On 12 January, Budi Gunawan was made suspect in an alleged corruption case by the KPK, a move strained KPK-POLRI relations which is yet to be settled. Under enormous public pressure, Jokowi announced on 18 January he would defer officiating Budi Gunawan as the new head of POLRI and appointed Badrodin Haiti as Ad Interim head of POLRI while the legal proceedings against Budi Gunawan takes place. PDIP and its allies are reportedly urging Jokowi to induct Budi Gunawan given his approval by the parliament, still others insisting Jokowi should make new nomination in light of Gunawan’s legal status. Jokowi is yet to decide.

Not long afterwards, on 23 January, in what many saw as a retaliation strike, Indonesian police arrested a commissioner of KPK, Bambang Widjoyanto, for an alleged crime of faking eyewitness testimonies before a court hearing allegedly committed a few years prior to Widjoyanto being appointed KPK kommissioner. The standoff between these two Indonesian law enforcement agencies continues with the remaining 3 KPK commissioners have all been reported to POLRI for crimes they allegedly committed prior to their entering into KPK. Despite public demands for the President to intervene not to debilitate KPK and consequently the fight against corruption in Indonesia, Jokowi is yet to take a firm action. His indecisiveness prompts observers to claim that Jokowi is now a political hostage of his patrons.

Timor-Leste’s leadership transition: Old to New

When the subject of Xanana’s resignation as Prime Minister was first made public, a number of names were floated. These include Agio Pereira, a senior member of Xanana’s CNRT party and the current Senior Minister in Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Dionisio Babo Soares, the Secretary General of CNRT and sitting Minister for Justice and Fernando de Araujo “Lasama” head of the second biggest ruling coalition partner, the Democratic Party and Deputy Prime Minister. The fourth name was Rui Maria de Araujo, a former Minister for Health and Deputy Prime Minister, member of the Central Committee of the opposition party FRETILIN. All four belong to the Timorese “new generation” which means anyone of them taking over marks the leadership transition from the old to the new generation.

A significant political process in the transition, is that while Xanana Gusmao resigns as Prime Minister, he is going to stay in the new government. Xanana’s leadership of the Strategic Planning Agency, which might be made a ministry, has been discussed, as Horta related. This begs the question of who the real Prime Minister will be with Xanana sticks around in the Council of Ministers. With all the historical and political personal standing of Xanana, this is a legitimate question on the way the new government is going about doing its works. Xanana may still overshadow the new Prime Minister and hold the real control over the government. As much as this can be a weakening factor to the new government, this can be a valuable asset for the new Prime Minister.

In his letter of resignation to the President of Republic, Xanana Gusmao explained that the reshuffle and his resignation would allow for leadership transition with the young generation taking over the leadership of the country. In an unorthodox move, Xanana has made his choice for the new Prime Minister, whom he presents in his resignation letter sent to President Taur Matan Ruak as well as a separate letter to his ruling coalition partners. Out of the four names, Xanana’s choice “falls upon Rui Araujo for Prime Minister in the VI Constitutional government.” Xanana argues that his choice of Araujo as his successor is because he “couldn’t find within the coalition government one person with the theoretical, technical and professional preparation who could guarantee, as head of government, ‘the Government’s stability’ that is necessary for this transition.”

Araujo’s choice is interesting for two political reasons; he does not belong to the ruling coalition and, though a senior member of the opposition FRETILIN, is not holder of high office within the party. These, however, should not lead to a quick conclusion that Rui Araujo will therefore be Timor-Leste’s Joko Widodo in the next two and a half years.

Post-2012 “Political Love Affairs”

Unsurprisingly, the nomination of Rui Araujo for the new PM has not surprised many in the country, not least because of the familiarity with his professionalism, integrity and incorruptible characteristics outlined in Xanana Gusmao’s letters. What is mind-boggling, though, is the “honesty” of Xanana Gusmao that he could not find anyone within his coalition to succeed him. More so, because it has now been revealed that Xanana had contemplated on his resignation as early as 2011, his appraisal of the possible successor within the new generation would have started quite soon after, if not at the same time or even earlier. It might not be an overstatement, then, to say that Rui Araujo is an influencing factor in the post-2012 changing posture of the Timorese politics.

In the wake of the 2012 general elections, the two biggest political forces of the country have come to forge an alliance that wasn’t even foreseen just before the elections. Given the history, the so-called “FRETILIN-CNRT love affairs” or “Xanana-Alkatiri political romance” would have only been made possible by critical interests the two have in common. Leadership transition is one such important interests and by Xanana’s own account, transition wouldn’t have been as smooth as he wished would it not be thanks to the changing political setting. Xanana knew from the day parliamentary election results were announced in 2012 that he and his coalition would only go so far in achieving some of their major political agendas, including managing the leadership transition.

Not unpredictably, Xanana’s political moves including on the question of his successor have alienated some within his ruling coalition. It appears some members were finding it difficult to accept that their Prime Minister has set his eyes beyond them in looking for his successor, worse still someone from the opposition party. Some public statements suggest that there is some resistance from within the government towards Rui Araujo’s nomination. Constitutionally, however, Prime Minister’s resignation marks the dissolution of the entire government hence the voice from the current ruling coalition leaders for Xanana’s successor is irrelevant, unless of course if asked by Xanana and CNRT.

Stepping into shoes ’75

Realistically, putting his feet into the shoes left behind by Xanana Gusmao is not an easy undertaking at this point of time. Given the political stature of Xanana, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Araujo would have to struggle to cope with high public expectations. In light of the timeframe before the next general elections, this will prove to be enormously difficult task. Not to mention, any resistance, as he is likely to encounter some of those who vie his appointment in the next government. Not least important is all the problems of governance that the new government inherits. It is unavoidable that Rui Araujo can be labelled a “petugas Xanana” as he negotiates his way through the politics of the new government given the nature of his nomination. Rui Araujo’s acceptance of the offer is a daring decision and one, nevertheless, he wouldn’t have reached without due consideration.

As is public knowledge, there is no doubt about competency for the post he has been nominated for. One thing Rui Araujo is yet to be fully tested in, however, is politics. When he accepted to serve under the first post-independence government led by FRETILIN under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, as Minister for Health, Araujo was not a formal member of the ruling party. Yet, he managed to fend political intervention and influence from the Prime Minister and ruling party. The challenge he will now face as Prime Minister is of a different magnitude of course, but it is not impossible that he can manage this time around too. After all, the two biggest political forces of Timor-Leste and all the living founding fathers of the country have the interest in having a well-managed leadership transition ensuring that the baton doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. If Rui Araujo fails to modify the shoes that Timor-Leste’s ’75 generation left to fit for the new generation, it will go down in history as the failure of Xanana Gusmao and FRETILIN too.

Timor-Leste is again at an important crossroad.