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.

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