By TIM ANDERSON
This year’s (2012) elections in Timor Leste will not just be about a clash of parties or personalities, but also a confrontation between two important themes: ‘mauberism’ and ‘big man’ culture.
Fretilin’s better known ‘mauberism’ is an assertion of indigenous identity which stresses cultural pride and collective action. ‘Maubere’ was the derogatory word used by the Portuguese for ordinary Timorese. Fretilin reclaimed the idea to stress identification with these same people. Common rural people (and not a European-style working class) were seen as the revolutionary subjects of an independence movement aiming at ‘ukun rasik an’ (self determination).
Many have written on the practical (e.g. literacy) and cultural achievements (post-colonial self-confidence) of ‘mauberism’. A criticism is sometimes made: did ‘mauberism’ elevate a racial element which was at times used against the many ‘mestizo’ or mixed race Timorese? If it did, the next question would be: to what extent does this matter?
Less has been said about ‘big man’ culture, a Melanesian concept which seems to also have roots in East Timorese culture, not least through the Liurai (kingly) tradition. The role of Xanana Gusmao in the post-independence scene is certainly the best example of this. In Timor it is sometimes referred to as the ‘maun bo’ot’ (big brother) idea.
‘Big man’ culture means that local and political conflict are seen as resolvable by the intervention of a great personality, a hero or mediator. The ‘big man’ politician, like the clan leader or the Liurai, can be seen as a unifying force, expected to impose himself on the situation and then distribute benefits.
Political weaknesses of this approach might be immediately apparent. The language is populist (promising more than is delivered, or hiding other agendas), accountability is ignored and corrupt private networks tend to displace the public sphere and to restrict participation. Mauberism, on the other hand, maintained the legitimacy of wider popular participation.
Xanana Gusmao joined his undoubted charisma and ambition with a disregard for conventional party politics. He left Fretilin in the 1980s, helped set up the Democrat Party (PD) prior to independence, then abandoned them for his new ‘CNRT’ in 2007. President Jose Ramos Horta invited this CNRT (with 24% of the vote in 2007, compared to Fretilin’s 29%) to form a government.
Horta himself, having built a prominent public profile, joined the ‘big man’ culture, unlike other prominent political leaders (like Estanislau da Silva and Rui Araújo, of Fretilin; or Fernando ‘Lasama’ de Araújo, of the PD) who continue to work, collegially, through political parties.
Many of Timor’s smaller parties (PD, PUN, PPT) are quite new, having been formed when the UN opposed a government of national unity (as was represented by the original ‘CNRT’, which included Fretilin) and pushed for a competitive multi-party system. As it happened, the first post-independence government, a Fretilin-led coalition, was almost a government of national unity. That all disappeared in 2006.
The multi-party system has arguably weakened the country. It certainly played a role in the conflict of 2006. Yet ‘big man’ culture was also prominent in divisiveness, and in weakening the young country’s political institutions.
The best example of this is the current, fictional CNRT party. As CNRT General Secretary Dionisio Babo-Soares admitted in Sydney a few years back, the CNRT ‘does not really exist’; but was more a ‘vehicle for change’. That is, it was a vehicle for Xanana to displace Fretilin.
Yet what replaced Fretilin was not a new party with alternative policies, but an unlikely coalition of various groups and individuals prepared to help squeeze out Fretilin, and to remain dependent on Xanana.
The extreme ‘big man’ dependence of the CNRT, and of its wider government coalition the AMP (Parliamentary Majority Alliance), subsequently crippled any real collegial policy formation. For example, the 2010 ‘Strategic Development Plan’ was pretty much an edict from the office of the Prime Minister.
Fretilin puts the weakness of the CNRT/AMP more or less this way: if Xanana Gusmao falls under a bus, that’s the end of CNRT/AMP; if Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri falls under a bus, Fretilin goes on.
A practical consequence of ‘mauberism’ at the party level is that Fretilin maintains a strong network of branches at a village level; the CNRT, with its ‘big man’ culture, has no such base. In government, ‘mauberism’ encourages collegiality and public accountability; ‘big man’ culture tends to replace this with a supposed benevolence and charity.
Current presidential candidate Taur Matan Ruak – former resistance leader who recently resigned as head of the armed forces – presents another element of ‘big man’ culture in Timorese politics. Taur has set himself against Fretilin’s candidate (Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres), saying that only he (Taur) can deliver the country from the ‘divisions’ caused by Fretilin: a classic ‘big man’ line.
Like Xanana, Taur is undoubtedly popular, but what he actually represents, beyond the populist rhetoric, remains to be seen. He may have some type of alliance with Xanana, whose government has been weakened by a series of corruption scandals. If this is the case, we may see another ‘big man’ electoral alliance, similar to the Xanana–Horta team in 2007.
Many people, inside and outside Timor, will tend to judge these developments according to their view of the personalities. After all, western ‘presidential’ systems are another form of ‘big man’ culture; albeit more often linked to political parties. Nevertheless, in presidential politics policy building and collegiality seem to matter less than assertions of personal virtue, coupled with popular rhetoric.
Whatever else might be said about the ‘big men’ of post-independence Timor Leste, they are not exactly famous for their brilliant development initiatives.
Horta, a great diplomat, successfully pushed for the virtual abolition of most taxes, leaving Timor Leste with possibly the narrowest tax base in the world and extremely budget dependent on its petroleum revenues.
The administration of Xanana Gusmao has been marked by serious waste and corruption. The largest budgets in the country’s short history have focussed on private contracts for infrastructure, ‘stimulus’ packages and a critical neglect of education and health.
Even if Taur as President were highly ethical and more talented, what legacy does an individual leave behind, in a country which so much to build? Can ‘Big Man’ culture really help develop a nation? I think not. Surely there is more to be said for pooling talents and building some distinct Timorese solutions?