President of East Timor to focus on economy and political stability | Political news

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Dili, East Timor – José Ramos-Horta, who came out of political retirement to run for president of Southeast Asia’s youngest nation for a second time, faces a series of challenges as he enters his first week complete in power.

Ramos-Horta, who previously served as president and prime minister, decided to re-enter the political arena after accusing his predecessor Francisco Gueterres, popularly known as Lú Olo, of overstepping his constitutional powers and dragging the economy in the ground.

He emerged victorious after the presidential vote went to a runoff in April.

Known to many as a revolutionary icon, Ramos-Horta received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his work fighting for the independence of East Timor. His global prominence made him a revered figure in the country – now officially known as Timor-Leste – and abroad, and allowed him to build up an impressive network of friends, many of whom visited in Dili to attend his inauguration.

Last week, Al Jazeera spoke with Ramos-Horta, who explained why he returned to politics and the kind of leader he hopes to be during his five years in power.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AlJazeera: Why did you decide to run for president again?

Jose Ramos Horta: I was approached in March 2020 by a large group of people who suggested that they wanted me to run for president again. Since 2018, current outgoing President [Lu Olo] made many decisions considered a violation of the constitution by refusing to swear in many cabinet members of the then-majority party. He did it two or three times, which in my opinion and in the eyes of many people was an abuse of power by overstepping the boundaries of the president’s authority.

Soldiers take part in a parade to mark 20 years of independence in the country officially known as Timor Leste, one of the youngest in the world [Allegra Mendelson/Al Jazeera]

The government has also been unable to revive the economy, especially in the midst of the pandemic. The president had fun imposing lockdowns and distancing and it really hurt the economy. Then the government was unable to compensate people for their work and for their losses.

AlJazeera: Just days before you were sworn in, former President Lú Olo backed a bill to further restrict the powers of the president. Why do you think he pushed for this law just before your inauguration?

Ramos Horta: No one understands why [this bill was introduced]. On the one hand, it is completely unconstitutional. You have a constitution – you cannot let a group of political parties in parliament decide the limits of the president’s power. It’s so silly.

People ask: “Well, these laws should also apply to the prime minister, to the deputies, why only to the president?” But they can’t because power sharing is defined in the constitution. They are so stupid. It’s very fragile [coalition] government, a bit like marrying a donkey with a monkey with a hen.

AlJazeera: Timor Leste has the lowest gross domestic product [GDP] per capita in Southeast Asia. What is your economic policy?

Ramos Horta: I understand the limits of the president’s power. I can articulate the wisest policy strategy on how to tackle economic issues, such as strong support for agriculture, but it will be up to parliament to approve and fund it.

I just hope I can muster enough public support and enough support from the international community. Instead I will say to donors, please don’t funnel money to government – government has access to their budget – all your money you want to use to help, make sure it goes directly to communities , go through a United Nations system.

Jose Ramos Horta takes the oath in Dili, East Timor.
Ceremonies marking the inauguration took place on May 20, marking 20 years since East Timor gained independence after a brutal Indonesian occupation. [Allegra Mendelson/Al Jazeera]

AlJazeera: What will be your approach to fighting unemployment, especially among young people?

Ramos Horta: First, we need to improve the education system. We need to focus more on vocational training and invest more in science and technology and less in the humanities. Too many young people go to the humanities because it’s easier. So we need to create incentives for students entering science.

Nor do I have a problem with young Timorese who go to work abroad. They make a lot more money [abroad] that we will never be able to pay them and they send money home. They learn new skills and come back changed. It’s a bit like going to college, but instead they go to work.

Another way is better education for our people and the creation of more jobs. We need to create incentives for young people to want to work in agriculture. It’s difficult. If we had industrialized agriculture maybe more young people would want to work but the reality in Timor Leste is that we have small land and not much water resources so I prefer small or medium agriculture for national consumption . We don’t need to dream of exporting overseas.

AlJazeera: As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lifelong politician, you have an extensive network of international contacts. How could this affect your presidency?

Ramos Horta: I don’t know if I have any influence with the international community. I spend time cultivating relationships with people – diplomats, ambassadors, government officials, but not with a sense of opportunism. I care about people.

My strength is not because I have many titles, these titles are the result of my performances and my commitment over the years. On a human level, I am the most accessible leader in the world. If I showed you my phone, you would see that hundreds of people have my phone number. So many people text me “Hello Grandpa” and of course I can’t say hello or hello or goodnight to 1,000 people, but if someone calls me asking for help, I try to help him with my own money or, in some more serious cases, I contact my sources in the country.

AlJazeera: Your investiture also marked the 20th anniversary of Timor Leste’s independence. How has the country changed over the past 20 years?

Ramos Horta: He has changed for much better. When we started, we had nothing – our annual budget was $63 million, now it’s $3 billion. Before, we had no electricity, now electricity covers 96.2% of the country. We had 20 doctors and now we have 1,200 doctors.

We have no political violence and we have no ethnic or religious violence. We don’t have organized crime – I often joke that we don’t have organized crime because generally we’re very disorganized as a country, so even criminals don’t organize.

Jose Ramos Horta greets guests after giving a speech on independence
Ramos-Horta, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, has developed strong international networks of support [Allegra Mendelson/Al Jazeera]

We have serious corruption, but it is more in the area of ​​contracts where things are marked out. For example, with road construction if it’s done by our government, there are networks of officials and although the deals are supposed to be secret, somehow they know and they pass on the information to their friends, the bidders, so that they can outbid the competitors. Ideally, we need an international and independent audit to look at when a contract is awarded and check if it has been done correctly.

AlJazeera: In your inauguration speech, you mentioned stepping up bilateral relations with China, while also calling on China to conduct a global dialogue for peace. Some reports now claim that strengthening ties with China is a priority for your presidency. What’s your answer to that?

Ramos Horta: If you listen to my speech, that was the only reference I made that sounded more like an indirect criticism. We are one of the few countries in the world that has no debt with China, and China is not even our largest aid donor. Yes, Chinese companies have won construction projects, like building roads, but they don’t win everything.

As I said in my [inauguration] speech, the most important countries for Timor Leste are Australia, New Zealand, ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea. These are absolute priorities. Regardless, China is important, but not more important.


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