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.

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