Xanana Gusmão has reportedly announced that he will step down as prime minister of East Timor within the next fortnight. Southeast Asia Globe speaks about the move to Damien Kingsbury, an expert on the country’s politics
January 29, 2015 / By: David Hutt
The independence hero and former guerrilla fighter Xanana Gusmão is set to resign as prime minister of East Timor within the next few weeks, press reports say.
Although no formal announcement has yet been made, the Sydney Morning Herald said Thursday that Gusmão met with a number of members of the government this week and outlined plans to step down. Gusmão has been East Timor’s prime minister since 2007, having previously served as president for five years.
An internationally celebrated figure, he has received dozens of prizes for efforts to secure the independence of East Timor from Indonesian control, as well as work to improve human rights and democratic conditions in the country.
After the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, Gusmão spent more than a decade as a resistance fighter. In 1992, he was captured and imprisoned.
Despite violence and intimidation, 1999 saw East Timorians vote for independence in a nation-wide referendum. Gusmão was released. The poll eventually led to a UN military intervention to secure an independent East Timor.
In 2006, Gusmão was at the centre of another crisis, when conflict within the country’s military grew, leading to an attempted coup and the spread of violence throughout East Timor. Several foreign countries intervened militarily to calm the situation.
Southeast Asia Globe speaks with Damien Kingsbury, personal chair at the School of International and Political Studies Deakin University, Melbourne, and an expert on East Timorese politics, about Gusmão’s legacy.
What are your thoughts on these reports and why do you think Gusmão choose this moment to resign?
He has been saying he will resign for about a year, although the date has been shifting. Last year, he told me it would be March or April, but I learned from a source very close to him a couple of days ago that his resignation was imminent. It is not unexpected as an event, but the timing was always open.
How would you judge his time in office?
Gusmão has provided East Timor with unity and stability, which was especially critical after the events of 2006. Most newly independent and post-conflict countries go through troubles and the question is, always: can they recover?
Gusmão’s greatest contribution was ensuring that East Timor could recover. His track record elsewhere is mixed: economic management is okay, but growth is driven by public spending, which is beyond the petroleum reserve interest rate, and will, if maintained, make the country broke in around 15 years.
There has been a corresponding growth in corruption, for which he is not personally responsible but has been too lax in addressing, even if he did establish the anti-corruption commission. And, of course, such a strong figure, while important, personalises power and hence becomes more difficult to replace.
What impact do you think his resignation will have on the politics of the country and how will it affect the government?
It depends on who succeeds Gusmão, but he will no doubt remain in the background to keep an eye on things, until he is satisfied that all is well and he can retire completely.
Gusmão is widely seen as an independence hero. How much support and admiration does he have from the East Timorese people and do you think his resignation will come as a shock?
Most East Timorese have been expecting Gusmão to resign for some time. He will be missed by many, perhaps most, but there is also a recognition that he needs to make way for younger leaders and that succession planning is vital if the country is to remain stable into the longer-term future.
Who do you think is most likely to replace him as prime minister?
From the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction [Gusmão’s political party] is think either Agio Periera or Dionisio Babo Soares. But if someone from Fretilin [another political party] is brought in, then perhaps Rui Araujo or Estanislau Da Silva.