Former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who has been prime minister of Timor-Leste since 2007, has once again surprised political pundits, this time by anointing Rui Araújo, a high-profile member of the opposition party FRETILIN, as his successor. Sworn in on Monday alongside the new PM are three new ministers from FRETILIN, who will join a smaller, revamped ministry dominated by Gusmao’s own CNRT party. Though Gusmao’s retirement has been on the cards since 2013, and a government of national unity has been mooted for many years, the outcome is still remarkable. Relations between the two major parties were openly bitter as recently as 2012.
Gusmao himself was sworn in yesterday as the new planning and investment minister, a move designed to provide stability as the new government takes it first steps. Given his enormous stature in East Timorese politics, his departure from centre stage – negotiated over recent months with the FRETILIN leadership and within his own party – was always going to be a watch point for political stability. This extraordinary remaking of the government, elected in 2012, is clearly designed to smooth the transition from the 1975 generation of leaders that has dominated post-independence politics.
Despite coming from the opposition party, Rui Araújo’s relationship with Gusmao dates back to when he was a clandestine messenger within the student resistance in the early 1990s. After training as a doctor in Indonesia and working in Dili in the late 1990s, he undertook a master of public health in New Zealand, focusing on models for a new health system for Timor-Leste. He then served as health minister in the first post-independence government from 2001 to 2007, and was briefly deputy prime minister. A widely respected figure, Araújo was a political independent until he joined FRETILIN in 2010. Most recently, he was a senior adviser to health and finance ministries, and is regarded as a highly competent and incorruptible administrator. These aspects of his public reputation were evidently critical to Gusmao’s choice.
That Gusmao was able to persuade his own party to back this deal, given the known leadership ambitions of its other senior figures, is a testimony to the importance of his charismatic authority to its political fortunes. That they have come together in the national interest is a tribute to the party itself. In his swearing in speech on Monday, the new PM described the outcome as “a more pragmatic logic of serving the national interest… the coming together of wills, experience and skills will allow us to overcome the traditional political and democratic contest, so that we may meet the challenges faced by the country.” He also warmly acknowledged the 1975 generation of leaders – Gusmao, former PM Mari Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta, along with current president Taur Matan Ruak – as “older brothers,” signalling this moment as one of generational change.
Written by Michael Leach, Swinburne University of Technology. This article originally appeared in Inside Story. Read the full article.