Category Archives: Timor-Leste

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:

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.

Timor-Leste – President Taur Matan Ruak sends ‘repressive’ media bill to the Court of Appeal


Until recently, President Taur Matan Ruak made little use of his legislative powers. Yet that changed when Timor-Leste’s National Parliament approved a ‘repressive’ media bill that reportedly poses a serious threat to press freedom in the country. The President requested the Court of Appeal to undertake an anticipatory review of the constitutionality of the parliamentary bill.

President Taur Matan Ruak has largely refrained from using (non)legislative powers to change policy since he took office in May 2012. Unlike his predecessors, Gusmão and Ramos-Horta, he has not criticized government policies in official communiqués, returned bills to Parliament, nor vetoed legislation. Indeed, no major institutional conflicts have occurred between President Taur Matan Ruak and incumbent Prime Minister Gusmão.

Yet the President refused to promulgate the controversial media bill. The bill has been wending its way through the tiers of government for over a year. Timor-Leste’s Council of Ministers approved a draft of the media law in August 2013 and Parliament passed it on 6 May this year, without a dissenting vote. The President however refused to sign it. Instead, he sent it to the Court of Appeal, to ensure that it “will not excessively limit the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution.”

The media bill came under fierce criticism from human right organisations, civil society and journalists’ unions. The bill would create a licensing system for journalists administered by a five-member government-funded press council. Media organisations would be prohibited from employing uncertified journalists. The licensing system would apply to domestic and foreign media outlets, giving the press council the power to deny access to Timor-Leste to foreign correspondents.

Several provisions in the law also allow the government to impose severe constraints on reporting. For instance, it obliges journalists to “promote the national culture” and to “encourage and support high quality economic policies and services.”

On 20 August the Court of Appeal ruled that certain provisions in the bill are in breach of the Constitution. Prime Minister Gusmão, who has been a key promoter of the media bill, is believed to be furious with the Court’s ruling. The Prime Minister had become increasingly irritated by criticism of his government and especially by the local media’s accusations of corruption. He accused them of being unruly, unprofessional and disloyal.

Parliament now has three options:

  1. Do nothing. In this case, the bill “dies”.
  2. Revise it in order to address the Court’s objections, and perhaps make other changes, and pass it again.
  3. Re-pass the bill without any changes. To pass a bill over the President’s and the Court’s objections requires a two-thirds vote of members present in Parliament.

It is believed that the parliamentary majority will accept the ruling of the Court and the President. President Taur Matan Ruak has strong support among local journalists and he seems convinced not to allow the law to pass as it stands or risk alienation from the press which is an important ally he has and may be needed in the future to advance his claims.

The President can still veto a revised bill on political grounds. Parliament, however, can override a political veto with a simple majority.

Timor-Leste – Veto Behaviour of Nonpartisan Presidents

Timor-Leste became formally an independent state in May 2002. Since independence and excluding two interim presidents, the country has had three presidents – Xanana Gusmão (2002-2007), José Ramos-Horta (2007-2012), and Taur Matan Ruak (2012-).

Article 85c of the constitution of Timor-Leste empowers the president to veto any bill. The constitution makes a distinction between bills created by the government (projetos de lei) and parliamentary bills (propostas de lei). Vetoes against government bills are absolute and cannot be overridden by parliament. Parliamentary bills vetoed on constitutional grounds require a two-thirds majority of the deputies present to be overridden (art. 88.3). A political veto can be overridden by the parliament with an absolute majority (art. 88.2).

President Gusmão (2002-2007)

In the presidential elections Gusmão ran as an independent. However, his candidature was publicly supported by virtually all (opposition) parties except for FRETILIN, the party that held a majority of seats in the parliament. The relationship between President Gusmão and Prime Minister Alkatiri, the leader of FRETILIN, was one of ‘conflictual cohabitation.’[1] Between May 2002 and June 2006 when Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned President Gusmão vetoed 3.2% of legislation (4 laws), the Tax Law (2002), the Immigration and Asylum Law (2003), the Freedom of Assembly and Demonstration Law (2005) and the Penal Code (2006).

In July 2006, José Ramos-Horta, an ally of the president, was appointed interim prime minister until the 2007 legislative elections. The composition of the cabinet and parliament remained largely unchanged.[2] During Ramos-Horta’s prime ministership, the president vetoed 8.3% of legislation (2 laws), the Law on Pension for Former Deputies (2006) and the Law on Pension for Former Officials (2007). So, the president vetoed more laws but a lower percentage of laws under ‘cohabitation’ than when the president and prime minister (but not his ministers!) were political allies.

President Ramos-Horta (2007-2012)

Like his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ramos-Horta ran as an independent in the 2007 presidential elections. His campaign was backed by all political parties bar FRETILIN and KOTA, which backed the FRETILIN candidate Francisco Guterres (Lu-Olo).  The veto rate under President Ramos-Horta was 7.9% (4 vetoes), the Law on Precedence in State Protocol (2010), the Land Law (2012), the Expropriation Law (2012) and the Real Estate Fund Law (2012).

President Taur Matan Ruak (2012-)

On 16 April 2012, the former commander of Timor-Leste’s defence force was elected president. Also Ruak was elected as an independent, but was supported by the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), the ruling party of the incumbent prime minister and former president Gusmão. So far President Taur Matan Ruak has promulgated 49 laws and has not vetoed any bill.

What explains the different veto behaviour of the three presidents? Situations like cohabitation or divided executive that are often hypothesised to explain variation in veto behaviour have little explanatory power in Timor-Leste given that all presidents have been formally nonpartisan. To be sure, leading scholars hold that cohabitation cannot emerge in democratic regimes where presidents are nonpartisan.[3] However, Timor-Leste demonstrates that non-partisans are unpredictable. The veto activity of, in particular, Ramos-Horta, indicates that his apparent partisan leanings did not guarantee his unwavering loyalty to the prime minister’s party.

[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.

[2] Prime Minister Ramos-Horta took charge of the defence portfolio and entrusted his previous portfolio of foreign affairs to José Luís Guterres, a fervent Alkatiri opponent. All other cabinet ministers who had served under Alkatiri were reappointed to Ramos-Horta’s new cabinet.

[3] Samuels, D. J. and Shugart, M. S. (2010) Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers. How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Timor-Leste – President Taur Matan Ruak

On 16 April 2012 Taur Matan Ruak, former commander of the Timorese Defence Forces, won the second-round presidential elections with 61.2 per cent of the votes to Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres’ of the FRETILIN party who garnered 38.8 per cent. Ruak had the decisive advantage of support from Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor (CNRT) party. Taur Matan Ruak replaced outgoing President José Ramos-Horta, who trailed in third place in the first round of voting on 17 March.

In the July 2012 parliamentary elections the CNRT party received the highest percentage share of the votes. Prime Minister Gusmão then formed a majority coalition with the Democratic Party (PD) and Frenti-Mudansa.

In his election campaign, the former General vowed to introduce mandatory military service. FRETILIN, one of the largest political parties in Timor-Leste, expressed concern that President Ruak has too much of a military orientation.

The Constitution of Timor-Leste states the President is elected for a five-year term and can be re-elected only once. It defines the President as the symbol and guarantor of national independence and the Supreme Commander of the Defence Force. To fulfil this mandate, the President is endowed with certain unilateral powers, such as the power to veto legislation or appoint military officials. These acts do not need the approval of either the Prime Minister and/or the legislature. Notably, the Constitution encourages the Prime Minister and the President to share power, specifically, but not exclusively over defence and foreign affairs. Political decisions that may compromise national security thus need to be taken by mutual agreement. Perhaps not surprisingly, these presidential prerogatives have led to a tug-of-war between former President Xanana Gusmão and his political rival Marí Alkatiri of FRETILIN during cohabitation. When in May 2006 the country was on the brink of a civil war, both leaders were embroiled in a shouting match who was in control over the armed forces and whether or not to call in international forces to restore peace in the country.

Yet, Timor-Leste’s political landscape has changed and President Taur Matan Ruak is a political ally of Prime Minister Gusmão. For one, the party of the Prime Minister, the CNRT, supported his presidential campaign, although Ruak decided to run as an independent. The President and Prime Minister both belong to “liberation-generation” politicians who spent most of their lives in the jungle fighting an independence war against Indonesian occupation.

The biggest challenge to President Taur Matan Ruak will be to watch over the Government’s use of the Petroleum Fund worth some $13.6 billion. Despite the oil riches, 37.4 per cent of the population still lives under the international poverty line of less than $1.25 per day. The International Crisis Group has described Timor-Leste as “an impoverished country with a very large bank account”. President Taur Matan Ruak showed his determination to tackle economic deprivation when he criticised the former Government (which is essentially the same as the actual Government) for its failure, despite the influx of oil revenues, to deliver on essential infrastructure and social programs.

Political alliances are not ever lasting in this new democracy. According to insiders, former President José Ramos-Horta lost the backing of the CNRT during his presidential campaign precisely because of his growing criticism of the Government. It is yet to be seen if the close relationship between the President and the Prime Minister can withstand political pressure.