Pro-Business Party Wins Timor-Leste Election, Potential For Stronger Ties With Cambodia

Gareth Johnson

The party of Timor-Leste’s independence hero Xanana Gusmão has won the most votes in the country’s parliamentary election. The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party, known by its Portuguese acronym CNRT won 41% percent of the vote according to official National Electoral Commission results. The CNRT is positioning themselves as the party of business, development, and investment.

Read more: CIR interview with Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta

The governing Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) came second winning 25% of the votes, with the remaining votes split among 15 smaller parties, a dramatic decline for FRETILIN. 

It marked the fifth parliamentary election since Timor-Leste gained independence. The oil rich country of 1.3 million people was recently granted ASEAN observer status, whilst under the Chair of Cambodia.

The country is now hoping to gain full membership of the regional block under the Chairmanship of Indonesia, with whom the country now enjoys strong ties following an exemplary truth, friendship, and reconciliation process between the two neighbors.

Most of the currently prominent politicians of the country are veterans of the struggle for independence, namely Gusmão, who is now 76, and FRETILIN’s Mari Alkatiri, who is 73.

Timor-Leste & ASEAN relations

Despite the win the CNRT fell short of gaining a majority and is likely to seek out its political ally, the Democratic Party (PD) to form a functioning coalition, something the country has lacked in recent years. The CNRT is positioning themselves as the party of business, development, and investment.

The parliamentary victory follows on from the CNRT’s win in last year’s presidential election which saw Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta become the nation’s head of state for the second time. 

Relations between the two post conflict states have been extremely strong in recent years and during the ASEAN presidency of Cambodia a high-level government delegation led by the President held a Business Summit in the Kingdom. 

Xanana Gusmão and Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen.

During the Summit key areas for potential economic cooperation were discussed, such as aviation, oil, and tourism. Despite boasting a rich culture and beautiful scenery and untouched beaches, Timor-Leste remains the least visited country in ASEAN, with the government keen to learn from the Cambodian experience in the sector. 

Read more: Timor-Leste and Cambodia seek more bilateral foreign direct investment

Tourism is now a key part of the Cambodian economy, with the Kingdom welcoming a record 6 million guests prior to the pandemic in 2019. Aside from tourism cooperation, Timor-Leste is also planning to import the bulk of its rice needs from Cambodia, with goods such as Timorese coffee expected to flow in the opposite direction. 

Cambodia and Timor-Leste trade

Speaking exclusively to Cambodia Investment Review about what the election result might mean for bilateral relations H.E President Ramos-Horta stated the development of Timor-Leste’s economy is a high priority to me and for the newly elected Prime-Minister, Xanana Gusmão. 

“We are both pleased with approval of the roadmap coinciding with the commencement of a new government committed to doubling efforts to fast track its implementation. It would be historically significant and mutually beneficial if Timor-Leste’s accession could take place in 2023 during Indonesia’s Chairmanship. I sense investors see the opportunities and are waiting to engage when the 66 priority economic agreements are in place to provide the benefits and certainty for trade and investment,” the president said.

Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia and Cambodia Investment Review reporter Gareth Johnson.

“This can snowball into greater progress to further improve the doing business and trade facilitation environment and provide certainty for the country to undertake major infrastructure investment necessary for regional integration at all levels.” The Nobel Laureate further added that he firmly believes that “it would be historically significant and mutually beneficial for Timor-Leste to accede in 2023 during the Chairmanship of Indonesia,” he added.

Read more: Timor-Leste keen to follow Cambodia’s lead in developing export industry

Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Kupa Lopes further added “Gusmão and Prime-Minister Hun Sen are already friends, so we expect the new government to work closely with Cambodia. We expect not only rice imports to start soon and hope to further increased trade and dialogue between Cambodia and Timor-Leste as an ASEAN member”.

Timor-Leste is often seen as one of the most promising of the so called “frontier markets” within the region. Aside from abundant natural resources and a large sovereign wealth fund the country also boats strong legal and democratic institutions. 

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