Category Archives: Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste – President’s party wins parliamentary elections

Last Saturday parliamentary elections were held in Timor-Leste. Provisional results show that the President’s party FRETILIN, the former resistance party has won the largest share of the votes, albeit not an absolute majority. Most likely and for the first time since independence a FRETILIN president and prime minister will govern the country.

On Saturday morning polling stations opened for 750,000 people to cast their vote on 21 parties, vying for 65 parliamentary seats.[1] Yet, just five parties managed to obtain parliamentary seats. The turnout was 76.74%, slightly higher than in 2012 (74.78%).

Provisional results Timor-Leste 2017 parliamentary election

Party Votes % +/- Seats +/-
Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste FRETILIN 168,422 29.65 -0.41 23 -2
National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction CNRT 167,330 29.46 -7.2 22 -8
Popular Liberation Party PLP 60,092 10.58 New 8
Democratic Party PD 55,595 9.79 -0.57 7 -1
Party of National Unity for the Children of Timor Khunto 36,546 6.43 3.46 5 0

The results indicate that the ruling parties CNRT, FRETILIN and PD have lost ground to the opposition. Dissatisfaction amongst the electorate is related to slow economic growth and alleged government corruption.[2]

Important to note is that in 2015 the CNRT, FRETILIN, PD, and Frenti-Mudança formed a government of national unity, which together held 57 seats in Timor-Leste’s 65-member parliament. This situation virtually eliminated opposition. During this all-inclusive power-sharing arrangement former non-partisan President Taur Matan Ruak acted as a national opposition leader, attacking the government in parliament over accountability issues in early 2016, and vetoed the initial version of its budget.

Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential constitution states that the president appoints and swears in the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the parliament. So, President Lu-Olo Guterres is expected to appoint to a party member to become prime minister when the latter manages to form a majority government. FRETILIN Secretary-General and former Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri has already announced that he is open to form a coalition with the CNRT, led by the popular former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. “We will do everything to embrace everyone but we will continue to work with Xanana Gusmao, the inescapable figure of this country, in order to respond to the clear message from our people,” he told the Portuguese newsagency Lusa.

If FRETILIN will share power with the CNRT, the key question will be whether opposition parties are willing to join a new unity government. Timor-Leste needs an opposition to hold the government to account. This is especially crucial when the president and prime minister are members of the same party. To be sure, in such a situation the president might be less inclined to act and oppose government policy.

[1] Following the promulgation of a new electoral law on May 5, 2017, the minimum percentage of valid votes that a political party or coalition must obtain to be included in the distribution of parliamentary seats was raised from 3% to 4%.

[2] BEUMAN, L. M. 2016. Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation, London, Routledge.

Presidential Profile – Timor-Leste: President-elect ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres (2017 – )

Francisco Lu-Olo Guterres is one of the most powerful people within the ruling party FRETILIN. He joined the party in 1974, became commander of the party’s military wing during Timor-Leste’s war for independence and played a key role in the country’s transition towards an independent and democratic state. And unlike many other key political figures, he never gave up his FRETILIN party membership.

Guterres, in Timor-Leste better known by his code name from the liberation struggle, ‘Lu-Olo’, was born on 7 September 1954. He describes himself as ‘the son of a poor family, of humble poor people’. Lu-Olo became member of the left-wing FRETILIN[1] in 1974, the main party of the resistance throughout Indonesian occupation. After the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste in December 1975, Guterres joined FALINTIL, the military arm of FRETILIN. As a FALINTIL commander he was responsible for organising the resistance in the Eastern part of Timor-Leste where until today the party is hugely popular. In the resistance movement he worked closely with Xanana Gusmão and Taur Matan Ruak and with those living in exile during the occupation, like Marí Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta. All were former FRETILIN members, but only Alkatiri and Guterres have remained loyal to the party.

In 2001 Guterres was elected president of FRETILIN at the party’s first congress and has stayed in that role since. From 2001 to 2002 he headed the constituent assembly, the body that was responsible for writing Timor-Leste’s new constitution. Under his leadership, Timor-Leste adopted premier-parliamentarism, a semi-presidential subtype. In the constitution the president is the symbol and guarantor of national independence and the supreme commander of the defence force. The president is endowed with certain unilateral powers, such as the power to veto legislation and appoint officials, and has special powers in the area of defence and foreign affairs. FRETILIN had won the 2001 parliamentary elections and on Independence Day on 20 May 2002 the CA turned into Timor-Leste’s National Parliament with Guterres as president. He remained in this function until 2007, when following the parliamentary elections FRETILIN was forced to the opposition bench.

Since 2007 Guterres ran three times for president but only his last bid was successful. Indeed, in 2007 and 2012 he lost the presidential run-off elections against Ramos-Horta and Ruak, respectively. With the crucial support of Gusmão and his own FRETILIN party, Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round of the presidential elections on 20 March 2017. In his victory speech, the president-elect promised to keep peace and unity as his primary goals of his presidency. “I’ll be president for all people in Timor-Leste, even those who didn’t vote for me,” he told a crowd of supporters. “I’ll keep fighting for peace and unity of our nation.” Yet, given that virtually all political parties are represented in a government of national unity, it is not entirely clear who, precisely, Guterres wants to unite.

Perhaps the unity government anticipates that in the near future its policy of ‘buying peace’ will no longer be an option. Ever since the massive inflow of petrol dollars in the mid-2000s, the government has spent millions of dollars in social benefits to appease the so-called veterans who (claim to) have played an active role in the independence struggle. These well-organised trained guerrilla fighters have shown to be capable to create chaos whenever they disagree with government policy. The problem now is that the government is rapidly running out of cash due to dropping oil and gas revenues[2], so it may no longer have the financial means to buy off the potential troublemakers.

The president-elect has announced to back the current government’s foreign policy direction when it comes to relations with Australia and Indonesia. This means that the current standoff between Timor-Leste and Australia over the exploitation of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field will continue to deprive the state of the much-needed oil revenues to fill up the rapidly growing budget hole. Furthermore, those who are dissatisfied with the current unity government may find it difficult to cast their vote in the upcoming parliamentary election as opposition is virtually non-existent.

Guterres will be sworn in as the fourth president of post-independent Timor-Leste on 20 May 2017.

Notes

[1] In 1974 FRETILIN was called ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association).

[2] Oil revenues make up 90 per cent of the budget and roughly 80 per cent of the country’s national income is derived from oil. It is estimated that the oil fields with production agreements will be depleted by 2025.

Former resistance leader becomes Timor-Leste’s first partisan president

The presidential election seems to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres. With some two-thirds of votes counted, the former independence fighter has received just under 60 per cent of the vote. For the first time since 2002 Timor-Leste will have a president formally affiliated to a political party.

It is the third time presidential elections have taken place in Timor-Leste, but the first time that a presidential candidate has managed to win a majority of the votes cast in the first round. Guterres owes much of his electoral success to the support of former President and PM Xanana Gusmão (CNRT) and FRETILIN. Together, the two parties control 55 out of 65 seats in parliament. In February 2015 cooperation between the CNRT and FRETILIN resulted in the formation of a government of national unity in which all political parties were represented, including opposition parties. The fact that Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round shows the broad popular support these parties have in Timor-Leste.

President Taur Matan Ruak did not seek re-election but supported Guterres’ closest rival António da Conceição of the Democratic Party (PD) who received 30 per cent of the vote. Last year, President Ruak created his own People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which will participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Recently, President Ruak has announced his desire to become the next PM.

To some extent, the presidential election was ‘business as usual’ in Timor-Leste: the candidate who has Gusmão’s support won the elections. What is new is that the president-elect is formally affiliated to a political party. So far, presidents have run on an independent ticket. Whereas under Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential system the head of state has limited executive power, in practice Timorese presidents have tended to take on the role of the opposition. During their presidency, Ramos-Horta and Ruak have frequently publicly expressed their concern with the rapid growth of the state budget, the increasing number of cases of corruption in which government officials were involved, and ‘unsustainable’ capital-intensive government investments. Both presidents lost Gusmão’s support and have only served one term.

It is unlikely Guterres will play a similarly active supervisory role during his five-year term in office. The president-elect is the official leader of the ruling party FRETILIN, which together with the CNRT will easily win the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Guterres will assume the presidency on 20 May. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early July.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste upcoming presidential elections: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Rui Graça Feijó is Lecturer at CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste will hold its fourth presidential elections on March 20. In spite of the lack of opinion polls, it is possible to suggest that they will reveal a new political landscape, the extent of whose novelty is still to be decided. To start with, these elections will confirm the Timorese “rule” that no incumbent succeeds in obtaining a second term in office

The field of candidates is composed of 8 individuals who submitted at least 5,000 endorsements with a regional distribution of at least 100 in each of the country’s 213 districts. This is the same number as in 2007, and 5 less than in 2012. Underneath the “normality” of this picture, a major change is occurring: there is a very strong candidate alongside seven others with little or no chance of actually fighting for anything more than a modest result, at best an honourable second. The presidential elections will thus fulfil two purposes: one is the official task of choosing a president; the other is to help contenders ascertain their hold on popular vote and their chances in the legislative elections scheduled for June, allowing for tactical decisions. On top of that, internal party struggles, a show of personal vanity, and access to the generous public support to candidates (at least US$ 10,000 per candidate regardless of their electoral score) will play a minor part in the circus.

FRETILIN proposed Lu Olo, its chairman (not its leader, the secretary-general Mari Alkatiri), as it had done in 2007 and 2012. Both times Lu Olo came first on the initial round only to see all other candidates rally against him in the decisive one. He has now received the formal backing of the largest parliamentary party, CNRT, and most of all, of the charismatic leader of the young nation, Xanana Gusmão. He is “Snow White” surrounded by seven dwarfs.

The main rival seems to be António Conceição. He is a member of Partido Democrático, a party that suffered a heavy blow with the death of its historical leader Fernando Lasama de Araújo (2015), followed by internal strife. The party as such ceased to be part of the governmental coalition, although his ministers were allowed to remain in functions as “independent”. António Conceição is one of those, and his bid at the presidency is partly a test for a presumed bid for the party leadership. He may have the backing of a new party, Partido da Libertação do Povo, inspired by the outgoing president Taur Matan Ruak, who declined to seek re-election and is widely believed to be preparing a bid for the premiership (if the presidential elections allow for such presumption).

Former minister José Luis Guterres, whose party Frenti-Mudança is the smaller one in the governmental coalition, has also declared his intention to run.

Two non-parliamentary parties have also fielded candidates. Partido Trabalhista supports its leader, Angela Freitas, and Partido Socialista Timorense backs António Maher Lopes. Although PST has no MP, its leader, Avelino Coelho, holds an important position in government.

A former deputy commissioner in the Anti-Corruption Commission, José Neves, is among those who seek the popular vote without party support – a circumstance that in the past has been critical in winning the second ballot, as candidates in these circumstances were able to build coalitions of all the defeated runners against the “danger” of a partisan candidate. Two others fall in this category: Amorim Vieira, of whom very little is known apart from the fact that he lived in Scotland where he joined SNP; and Luis Tilman, a virtually unknown individual who also presents himself as “independent”.

A few things emerge from this picture. Against what is expectable in two-round elections in fragmented party systems (Timor has 4 parliamentary parties, about 30 legal ones, and the 2012 elections had 21 parties or coalitions running), which induce the presentation of candidates on an identity affirmation basis in view of a negotiation for the second ballot (as was the case in Timor in 2007 and 2012), this time the two largest parties negotiated a common candidate before the first round, significantly increasing the likelihood that he will be elected on March 20.

It thus highly probable that Timor-Leste will have for the first time a president who is a member of a political party. The experience of three non-partisan presidents comes to an end not because the rules of the game have been changed, but rather because the political scenario has moved considerably. Back in 2015, a government of “national inclusion” replaced the one led by Xanana with the backing of all parties in the House, even if FRETILIN, who offered one of its members for the premiership, still claims to be “in the opposition”.  The move has been called by a senior minister “a transformation of belligerent democracy into consensus democracy”. Although the outgoing president is supposed to have facilitated this development, he soon turned sides and became a bitter and very outspoken critic of Rui Maria de Araújo’s executive and the political entente that sustains it.

Now the two major partners of the entente agreed to go together to the presidential elections, signalling that they wish to continue the current government formula after this year’s cycle of elections (even if the place of smaller parties in the coalition is not secure, and a question mark hangs above the score that the new opposition PLP may obtain). More than this, they assume that the role of the president has somehow changed from being the guarantor of impartiality discharging a “neutral” function as “president of all Timorese” to be a player in the partisan game, throwing his political and institutional support behind the government coalition.

A question emerges when one considers that CNRT is the largest party in the House, and that it has relinquished the right to appoint the prime minister (who is a member of FRETILIN acting in an “individual capacity”) and now forfeits the chance of securing the presidency, offering it to its rival/partner. Will it maintain this low-key attitude after the parliamentary elections if it remains the largest party?

The CNRT/FRETILIN entente suggests that Timorese politics lives in a double stage: the official one with state officers discharging their functions, and the one behind the curtains where de facto Xanana (who is simply a minister) and Mari Alkatiri (who holds a leading position in a regional development entity) tend retain the reins of actual power. In this light, public efforts to promote the “gerasaun foun” (younger generation) in lieu of the “gerasaun tuan” (the old guard that was already present back in 1975) by offering the premiership and other jobs to those who are relatively younger needs to be carefully hold in check.

In Dili, I was told that Timorese presidents tend to suffer the “syndrome of the wrong palace”. This expression is meant to convey the idea that they become frustrated with the (allegedly limited) powers bestowed upon them by the constitution, and consider that the legitimacy conferred on them by a two round election that guarantees an absolute majority is sort of “kidnapped”. They are prisoners in their palace. They believe they have the right to determine strategic orientations and cannot find the actual means to implement them. So they look at the premiership in the palace next door. Xanana stepped down from the presidency and launched a party and a successful bid to head government; Taur Matan Ruak is trying to follow suit – but his chances are not deemed so high. If Lu Olo manages to get elected, the sort of relations he is likely to establish with the prime-minister are totally different, as he is compromised with “one majority, one government, one president” – only the president is not likely to be the one who leads. Will this resolve the syndrome issue? Interesting times lay ahead.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste’s upcoming elections and the prospects for semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste is preparing for next year’s elections (presidentials in March/April, legislative in July). To a large extent, these will be centred around the president’s opposition to the ruling majority as from late 2015.

In 2012, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR) – the last leader of the guerrilla and Chief of Staff of the armed forces – ran as an “independent supported by Xanana’s party, ousting the incumbent Ramos-Horta in the first round and defeating Fretilin’s Lu Olo in the second. In preparation for those elections, some members of Fretilin were inclined to give TMR their support based on his track record of good relations with the party. The party’s leadership chose otherwise, but the seed for cooperation was there. It came as no surprise then that the major political event of TMR’s presidency was a broad parliamentary agreement that opened up the doors for Fretilin to join the government. In February 2015, Rui Maria de Araujo, a member of Fretilin acting in a non-party capacity, was sworn in a PM of the 6th Government – a government of “national inclusion”. For the first time since independence, all parliamentary parties had a seat in government[1]. TMR is widely credited with this development, and he came out in favour of it when he said:

“How does a democracy work without opposition? Democracy is not an end to Timor, it is a means. Between a classical form of democracy and another one consisting of reinforcing social and political cohesion, we have chosen the latter.”[2]

However, the president kept his “independent” persona: he toured more than 350 of the country’s 440-odd sukus (villages), thus decentralising contact with citizens (“It is incredible what I see there. The government has done its job. But people always want more.”), and made sure his channels of communication via the media were kept open (and thus opposed as much as he could alterations to the freedom of the press bill).

By the end of 2015 the political scenario had evolved. Parliament passed a bill making it more difficult to register new political parties. The president held back the law until a party widely tipped to be his own creation had the chance to register under the old rules. A few weeks later, he vetoed the 2016 state budget that had been passed by a unanimous vote in the House, and appealed to parliamentarians to introduce substantial changes, arguing for his vision of the country based on contacts with the population. They took a blind eye to the president’s recommendations and insisted on the very same budget. The rupture between the president and the government majority was consummated. In hindsight, it is possible that the president believed the change of government also meant a new political orientation that never materialized.

Last February, using his constitutional powers, the government proposed to extend the mandate of the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, who had been TMR’s second in command. The president disagreed – a decision within his powers. However, he went two steps further: he dismissed the military commander and appointed a new one without consultation with government – and this was not within his constitutional powers. A serious conflict ensued, the result of which is still pending. The president stepped back from the dismissal and the new appointment, but has thus far not resolved the issue in spite of lengthy negotiations.

More recently, the parliamentary majority enacted a law on the composition of the National Electoral Commission which met with TMR’s opposition, but which he was again forced to sign after a second parliamentary vote. TMR expressed the hope that the new body would not be implemented before the next round of elections – as the Commission is dependent on the government and parliament, excluding civil society from its composition, thus being prone to manipulation by those who already have seats – but it seems the old members have been notified of the termination of their term in office.

TMR has made it known that he would not seek re-election, creating a situation in which none of the first three presidents was elected for a second consecutive term. It is believed he will follow Xanana’s example of creating his own political party and fight the legislative elections after he steps down. An “executive syndrome” seems to have struck again in a country whose president is entrusted with significant but not executive powers.

In spite of serious confrontations between the president and the government (after the 2006 crisis), including in prominent place the definition of the president’s competences in matters of national defence and security that Lydia M. Beuman (2016) considered the “Achiles heel” of semipresidentialism in young democracies, but which have extended to other realms, there is no sign that the Timorese will place a revision of their constitutional system on the agenda for the upcoming elections. The debate will continue on the profile of presidential powers (Beuman 2016, Strating 2016) which, in my view, are quite considerable but lack executive competences. In a way, the “pouvoir d’empêcher” overweighs the competences for initiative, which nevertheless are present in the array of his powers (Feijo, 2016).

After having elected three “independent” presidents, entertaining the idea that there was a clear difference between the realm of presidential powers and that of government, the 2017 elections could finally see the election of a party candidate, as Fretilin seems to insist that it is now “Lu Olo’s turn”. However, it may also be that a strong “independent” candidate may emerge (rumours have it that former president Ramos-Horta is considering his bid). Without constitutional changes, the upcoming elections may bring substantial innovations nonetheless.

References

Beuman, Lydia M., 2016. Political Institutions in East Timor. Semi-presidentialism and Democratisation. London & New York, Routledge

Feijó, Rui Graça, 2016. Dynamics of Democracy in Timor-Leste. The birth of a democratic nation, 1999-2012. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press

Strating. Rebecca, 2016. Social Democracy in East Timor. London & New York, Routledge

[1] Later, PD would be removed from the governing coalition.

[2] http://www.rtp.pt/noticias/mundo/timorenses-tem-estado-a-aprender-fazendo-afirma-taur-matan-ruak_n874728 accessed July 8, 2016

Timor-Leste – Debate about the system of government

In the literature, there is a vibrant debate about Timor-Leste’s system of government. While most scholars agree that the country has adopted the premier-presidential subtype of semi-presidentialism, others disagree. This post engages in the debate about Timor-Leste’s regime type and maintains it has a premier-presidential constitution.

While most scholars share the view that Timor-Leste is semi-presidential Damien Kingsbury argues that the country has adopted a parliamentary regime.[1] He uses Duverger’s definition of semi-presidentialism in support of his argument.[2] Duverger considers a political regime as semi-presidential if the constitution which established it combines three elements: (1) the president of the republic is elected by universal suffrage; (2) he possesses quite considerable powers; (3) he has opposite him, however, a prime minister and ministers who possess executive and governmental power and can stay in office only if the parliament does not show its opposition to them (Duverger, 1980).

Kingsbury asserts that Timor-Leste’s constitution does not conform to the second criterion: that of possessing quite considerable powers, which is, according to him, the most critical defining element of a semi-presidential system. The powers of the president of Timor-Leste are similar to those enjoyed by ceremonial presidents, he argues. Moreover, the fact that the president has veto power does not imply that the system is semi-presidential. To Kingsbury, veto power is ‘largely a ceremonial function in which the head of state rubber stamps legislation passed by the government of the day’ (2013: 73).

Unlike Duverger, who defined semi-presidentialism based on the content of the constitution, Kingsbury bases his argument – namely that Timor-Leste is parliamentary – on the fact that with respect to his lawmaking authority, the president in practice acts like a rubber stamp. The fact that a president does not use his legislative powers does not imply that a regime is parliamentary. Moreover, and contrary to what Kingsbury claims, presidents of Timor-Leste have frequently vetoed legislation. Moreover, according to Shugart veto power can be regarded as ‘quite considerable’ in Duverger’s sense (2005: 339).[3]

Kingsbury also argues that under the Timor-Leste constitution, the presidency is largely a ceremonial position with regard to other powers, such as the authority over the armed forces, which he calls ‘nominal’, and the fact that presidents can appoint governments only ‘within circumscribed constitutional rules’ (Kingsbury 2013: 75).

Here Kingsbury does not recognise that the president has important powers in the area of defence and foreign affairs as well as over the formation of the cabinet. Firstly, in the area of defence, the constitution grants the head of state important appointment powers, such as the power to appoint the commander of Timor-Leste’s defence forces.[4] Secondly, the president may conduct negotiations on behalf of Timor-Leste towards the completion of international agreements on security and defence issues, in agreement with the government[5]. Thirdly, the constitution grants the president negative power over the composition of the government. Although the president does not have the power of initiative in the process of selecting government members, (s)he can always refuse to appoint them. It is then up to the prime minister to select another candidate who is more acceptable to the president. In sum, Timor-Leste adopted a semi-presidential system. The regime combines at once a popularly legitimated and more-than-ceremonial president with a cabinet that can be replaced if it loses the confidence of the parliament.

According to Rui Feijó Timor-Leste adopted the president-parliamentary subtype of semi-presidentialism.[6] This scholar argues that although the system ‘behaves’ as premier-presidential, ‘institutionally’ the system is president-parliamentary (Feijó 2014: 276). Only in president-parliamentary systems the head of state possesses power to dismiss the prime minister. Feijó’s argument is that the constitution and in particular section 112(2) defines a president-parliamentary system. Section 112(2) stipulates that ‘The president of the republic shall only dismiss the prime minister (…) when it is deemed necessary to ensure the regular functioning of the democratic institutions, after consultation with the council of state’. To Feijó, this section provides that under ‘exceptional’ circumstances the president has the political power to dismiss the prime minister (2014: 272).

Feijó correctly points out that the president is empowered to dismiss the prime minister under exceptional circumstances. However, section 92 of the Constitution provides that the National Parliament is the organ of sovereignty (…) and is vested with legislative supervisory and political decision making powers. So, the mere fact that the president cannot dismiss the prime minister under ‘normal circumstances’, that is, when the prime minister enjoys the confidence of the parliament makes that constitution premier-presidential. Therefore, I maintain that Timor-Leste adopted the premier-presidential subtype of semi-presidentialism.[7]

[1] Damien Kingsbury, “The Constitution: Clarity without Convention,” in The politics of Timor-Leste: democratic consolidation after intervention, ed. Michael Leach and Damien Kingsbury (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2013).

[2] Maurice Duverger, “A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government,” European Journal of Political Research 8, no. 2 (1980).

[3] Matthew Søberg Shugart, “Semi-Presidential Systems: Dual Executive and Mixed Authority Patterns,” French Politics, no. 3 (2005).

[4] Constitution of Timor-Leste (2002), §86(m)

[5] Ibid. §87.

[6] Rui G. Feijó, “Semi-presidentialism, moderating power and inclusive governance. The experience of Timor-Leste in consolidating democracy,” Democratization 21, no. 2 (2014).

[7] Lydia M. Beuman, Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation (London: Routledge, 2016).

Timor-Leste – Mr. President, how does democracy work in Timor if there is no opposition?

That question was posed by American congressmen when they met President Ruak in August 2015. Ruak’s latest speech before Timor-Leste’s National Assembly showed a president who had become increasingly critical of the government of national unity (GNU), accusing former prime ministers Marí Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmão of abusing power for private gains. Tension runs high between the president and government.

The GNU was formed in February 2015 when Rui Araújo member of Timor-Leste’s single opposition party FRETILIN replaced Gusmão as prime minister. The GNU includes all political parties so Timor-Leste’s parliament does not have an opposition party. In the GNU Gusmão is minister of infrastructure and Alkatiri president of the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse.

In my last post I described the tug-of-war between the president and the GNU over the 2016 state budget. The president vetoed the law because, in his opinion, the budget disregarded the needs of the poor. Parliament simply ignored the president’s objections and voted unanimously for a law identical to the one the president vetoed. Following the budget talks, Gusmão’s CNRT party sent a “divorce” letter to PD, one of the coalition parties, excluding them from the coalition for lack of “political loyalty”.

In a recent confrontation, parliament tried to reverse the president’s decision not to reappoint the commander of Timor-Leste’s defence force General ‘Lere’ Anan Timur. According to deputies of the parties CNRT, FRETLIN and Frenti-Mudança – together holding 57 seats in Timor-Leste’s 65-member National Assembly – the president’s decision was unconstitutional and threatened to impeach the president.

Article 86 of the Constitution of Timor-Leste reads that ‘It is incumbent upon the President of the Republic to appoint and dismiss, following [emphasis added] proposal by the Government, the General Chief of Staff of the Defence Force (…)’. So, the prime minister needs the president’s signature to ratify the appointment of an army chief. In this way, the constitution forces an agreement between both leaders on the commander of the armed forces.

Timor-Leste’s constitution contains many of such ‘power sharing constructions’, in particular, in the area of defence and foreign policy. Power sharing may lead to a power struggle when there is a poor relationship between the president and prime minister. Defence and foreign policy issues are, therefore, more likely to generate institutional conflict.[1] All in all, parliament did not start impeachment proceedings against the president and compromise candidate, Pedro Klamar Fuik, was appointed Timor-Leste’s new defence force commander.

The president explained his decision in a fiery speech before Timor-Leste’s National Assembly, arguing that the government used the debate about Lere “to get to the president of the republic”. In the same speech he compared former prime ministers Gusmão (2007-2015) and Alkatiri (2002-2006) to the Indonesian dictator Suharto, saying there was “widespread discontent” among the public that their families were benefiting from lucrative government contracts. “President of the Republic had received complaints concerning privileges granted to our brothers Xanana’s and Marí’s family members and friends within regarding contracts signed with the State,” he said. “[There is] widespread discontent over the granting of privileges. Suharto was overthrown by his family. Too many privileges!”

The president concluded that the formation of the GNU should have brought political stability and economic prosperity. Instead, he stated, “they [Alkatiri and Gusmão] do not use unanimity, mutual understanding to solve political and economic issues but use it for purposes of power and privilege.” In protest against the president’s speech, Gusmão returned his medal, awarded to him by President Ruak in 2015.

Growing political tensions may be related to the upcoming elections. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for March/April and July 2017, respectively. President Ruak will run for prime minister, leading the newly formed Peoples Liberation Party, which will challenge the nation’s most established political parties, Gusmão’s CNRT party and FRETILIN led by Alkatiri. President Ruak is expected to run on a joint ticket with former army chief Lere who will run for president.

The relationship between President Ruak and the GNU looks set to only deteriorate.

[1] Lydia M. Beuman, Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation (London: Routledge, 2016).

Timor-Leste – Presidential veto causes political tension

President Taur Matan Ruak vetoed the 2016 budget law on 29 December 2015. The president vetoed the law because, in his opinion, the budget disregarded the needs of the poor. Parliament ignored the president’s objections and his veto was overridden without a single dissenting vote.

The adoption of the budget law has been delayed several times. Firstly, the ministers themselves could not agree on the proposed budget and failed to meet the October 15 deadline set by the Budget and Financial Management Law. The government presented the proposed budget to parliament on September 29th 2015.

On 2 December 2015 President Taur Matan Ruak threatened to veto a budget that does not prioritize education, health, agriculture and other sustainable sectors over physical infrastructure. Likewise, civil society groups stated that programs which benefit most people – such as health care, education, agriculture, rural roads and water – were cut, while projects which will be mainly used by the affluent and powerful – airports, highways, oil processing – got a larger share. Physical infrastructure[1] takes up more than a third of Timor-Leste’s budget (see figure below).

 

2016 budget - picSource: http://www.laohamutuk.org

The veto threat provoked considerable discussion in parliament about the president’s constitutional powers. Yet it did not influence the contents of the budget. Timor-Leste’s National Assembly voted unanimously in favour of the budget law on 3 December.

True to his word, the president vetoed the budget law on 29 December. In a six-page letter addressed to parliament, the president reiterated his objections to the (size of the) budget. For its part, parliament ignored the president’s recommendations and an identical budget was unanimously approved on 8 January 2016.

The president can complicate the enactment of legislation by referring it to the court. The constitution of Timor-Leste grants the president power to send legislation to the Court of Appeal (the country’s highest court) to determine whether it violates the constitution. If so, the president can issue a ‘constitutional veto’. Former President José Ramos-Horta, used this power when, for instance, he asked the court to review the constitutionality of the (rectified) 2008 and 2011 budget. A two-thirds majority in parliament is necessary to override a constitutional veto.

President Taur Matan Ruak decided not to send the budget law to the court. Such an act would probably only have postponed the implementation of the budget. To be sure, the president faces a government in which all parties in parliament are represented. So, parliament can easily override a constitutional veto as well.

The president reluctantly promulgated the 2016 budget law on 14 January 2016.

[1] Roads, ports and airports, other infrastructure, and Tasi Mane. The Tasi Mane project involves the development of a petroleum infrastructure on the south coast of Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste – GNU requires close presidential oversight

In February this year President Taur Matan Ruak swore in a government of national unity (GNU). In my previous post on Timor-Leste, I explained that the GNU comprises all major political parties, including the single opposition party FRETILIN. The absence of an opposition thus imposes extra responsibility on the President to oversee the performance of the government and parliament, including the 2016 budget which will be sent for his approval soon.

Yet, President Ruak has demonstrated to be a relatively passive participant in the day-to-day political affairs of the state. Being the guardian of the Constitution, an important task of the president is to prevent the executive branch from encroaching on the power of the judiciary. Be that as it may, President Ruak did not take a strong critical stance against the government when in October 2014 resolutions were used as a means to dismiss and expel foreign judges, prosecutors, defenders and other international advisors working in Timor-Leste’s judicial system. The stated legal basis for the resolutions was force majeure and the need to protect the national interest. The government lost a number of tax cases against foreign oil companies and believed that the incompetence of the foreign judges or even corruption were behind the adverse tax decisions. Yet others associated the government’s decision with corruption cases in which government members were allegedly involved. The Asia Foundation and Amnesty International strongly denounced the act, calling it an attack on the independence of the judiciary and the Constitution of Timor-Leste. The President’s reaction was limited to an address to the nation in which he called on the government to respect the independence of judiciary.

That said, President Ruak did intervene after the government approved the media law that according to Human Right Watch and national NGOs tried to curtail the freedom of expression. Even though the bill was passed unanimously in Timor-Leste’s parliament, the President decided to request the Court to review the constitutionality of the bill. After the Court ruled that certain provisions in the law were unconstitutional, the bill was returned to the national parliament.

Soon the controversial 2016 budget will be discussed in parliament, which needs the President’s signature to become law. The 2016 budget does not reduce state spending despite slower economic growth. Analysts have repeatedly warned that the extravagant state expenditures are unsustainable. Yet, major changes in the budget are unlikely. Since the rapprochement between the political rivals Gusmão and FRETILIN, the former opposition party has unanimously backed the 2013, 2014 and 2015 budgets. Now that FRETILIN member Araújo heads the government there is little chance that FRETILIN lawmakers will reject the 2016 budget. The absence of an opposition, therefore, imposes great responsibility on the shoulders of President Ruak to scrutinise the budget.

To date the President has not used his power to criticise or (to threaten) to veto the budget and is unlikely to do so in the near future. By comparison, former President José Ramos-Horta has been far more critical of the government’s fiscal performance. It is an open secret that Ramos-Horta lost the support of Gusmão’s CNRT party during the 2012 presidential campaign precisely because of his criticism of the growing budgets. In 2017 presidential elections will be held in Timor-Leste. To secure a second term in office, President Ruak will need the support of (one of) the ruling parties.

Timor-Leste – The new unity government

On 16 February President Taur Matan Ruak swore in a unity government following the resignation of former PM Xanana Gusmão, founder and leader of the ruling National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party. The CNRT nominated Rui Araújo, member of Timor-Leste’s opposition party, FRETILIN, for the post of prime minister. The net effect of the government reshuffle is that Timor-Leste no longer has an opposition party in parliament.

Gusmão has been the face of Timor-Leste since independence in 2002. As a former resistance fighter he was the main leader of the independence movement against the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999). Gusmão was the first president of post-independent Timor-Leste (2002-2007) and served as prime minister since 2007.

Gusmão’s CNRT party won the 2012 parliamentary election and formed a coalition with two smaller parties – the Democratic Party (PD) and FRETILIN splinter party, Frenti-Mudanca (FM). Together, the coalition government occupied 40 seats in the 65-member assembly. FRETILIN became the single opposition party with 25 seats. At the time, the CNRT explicitly rejected FRETILIN’s proposal to form a broad-based coalition, which led to violent protests by FRETILIN supporters and clashes with security forces in July 2012.

Given that after Gusmão’s resignation President Taur Matan Ruak did not call for fresh parliamentary elections the party composition in parliament remains unchanged. In other words, the newly formed unity government now holds all seats in parliament and, consequently, there is no opposition party that can hold the government to account.

The fact that Gusmão has tendered his resignation does not come as a surprise, however. Gusmão has stated several times not to stay on as prime minister until the 2017 parliamentary electies.

Yet Gusmão’s move to pick his successor from opposition party FRETILIN is, at minimum, extraordinary. During the independence struggle Gusmão and members of FRETILIN were already political rivals. Conflicts between both camps continued and were ‘institutionalised’ during a period of cohabitation (2002-2006) when Gusmão was elected President and the secretary-general of FRETILIN, Marí Alkatiri, Prime Minister.[1] Also as an opposition party FRETILIN waged a political battle against Gusmão’s CNRT coalition government, accusing it of corruption and gross financial mismanagement. So, bringing FRETILIN into government may ease the young nation’s often fraught politics.

PM Araújo is Timor-Leste’s fifth post-independence PM. He served as Heath Minister under the United Nations Transitional Administration (2001-2002) and under the FRETILIN government (2002-2007). After the CNRT won the parliamentary elections in 2007, Araújo worked as a policy advisor at the Ministry of Finance.

PM Araújo’s explanation for the government reshuffle was that Timor-Leste is too small for divisive politics. ‘The pool of talent is very limited,’ he said. ‘We came to the realisation . . . we have to call everybody who is willing and who is capable of contributing to the development of this country to participate in the government.’

The question remains why the top job went to a FRETILIN member and not to a member of one of the ruling parties. Some speculate that political infighting between CNRT, PD and FM about the PM’s position gave way for the new coalition between CNRT and FRETILIN. Only recently, the leaders of the PD and FM declared not to be sure whether to support the new PM.

So whether the unity government will be a stable government is an open question. For instance, what happens if the new Prime Minister and old Prime Minister – now Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment – disagree? Another important question is how the parties in the same government will run against each other in the 2017 parliamentary election.


Structure of the VI Constitutional Government

Prime Minister Rui Araújo FRETILIN
Minister of State and of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers Ágio Pereira CNRT
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of Education Fernando LaSama de Araújo PD
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs and Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Estanislau da Silva FRETILIN
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of State Administration Affairs and Justice and Minister of State Administration Dionísio Babo Soares CNRT
Minister of Finance Santina Cardoso Independent
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Hernâni Coelho FRETILIN
Minister of Justice Ivo Valente CNRT
Minister of Health Maria do Céu Pina daCosta CNRT
Minister of Social Solidarity Isabel Guterres Independent
Minister of Commerce, Industry and Environment António da Conceição PD
Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Francisco Kalbuady Lay CNRT
Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communication Gastão de Sousa PD
Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Alfredo Pires CNRT
Minister of Defence Cirilo Cristóvão CNRT
Minister of the Interior Longuinhos Monteiro Independent
Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment Xanana Gusmão CNRT

 

[1] Beuman, L. M. (2013) ‘Cohabitation in New Post-Conflict Democracies: The Case of Timor-Leste’, Parliamentary Affairs, 1-23. doi:10.1093/pa/gst016.