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.

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