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).

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