Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: The return of “belligerent democracy” in the aftermath of the 2017 electoral cycle?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó, CES/UCoimbra & IHC/UNLisboa

A few weeks before the inauguration of the “Government of National Inclusion” headed by Rui Maria de Araújo and supported by all four parties with parliamentary seats – the VI Constitutional Government of Timor-Leste (2015-2017) – and anticipating its success on the basis of the inter-partisan cooperation set in motion after the 2012 elections, Agio Pereira, a senior minister and Xanana Gusmão’s right hand man, claimed in a newspaper column that Timor was moving “from belligerent democracy to consensus democracy”.

This was the mood that most observers felt in the country prior to the 2017 cycle of elections (presidential polls in March, parliamentary ones in July). An opinion poll conducted for the Asian Foundation revealed that 58% of the Timorese were satisfied with the way the country was being run, and a similar figure expressed the view that the role of a candidate in the Resistance movement against Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) was the single most important determinant of their vote. If a question mark subsisted, it referred to the impact of the outgoing President, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), who had moved from supporting the formation of the VI Government to a position of open criticism of the strategic option of that broad coalition. TMR declined to seek a second term and formed a political party (PLP – People’s Liberation Party) to fight the premiership

Unlike the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (which were in line with what usually happens in two-ballot elections), when political parties presented their own candidates alongside some “independent” candidates, entering informal alliances for the second round, in 2017 FRETILIN managed to guarantee the support of Xanana and later of his party (CNRT) to its partisan candidate, Lu Olo. In a sense, this was regarded as an extension of the government agreement and as a suggestion that the two parties intended to maintain their collaboration beyond the electoral cycle. Lu Olo was elected on the first ballot as the first partisan president of the Republic, succeeding three “independent” ones.

The July elections returned FRETILIN as the largest party (23 seats) by a margin of barely 1,000 votes over CNRT (22 seats) – both hovering under 30% of the vote. PLP scored 11% (8 seats). Two other parties secured seats: PD, a junior partner in the outgoing government, has 7 seats (10%) and KHUNTO, another newcomer, 5 seats (6%). On the evening of election day, no one could say there had been any great surprise. But the next days would bring some.

As a party formed to oppose the strategic options of the former government, PLP announced rather naturally that it would sit in the opposition. Its leader declared he would not take his own seat in the House, but would support his party stance. The major surprise came when Xanana announced he would follow the steps of TMR, moving his party to the opposition and leaving his seat in parliament.

President Lu Olo understood the delicate nature of the situation and went beyond his institutional mandate to consult with all parliamentary parties (normally sending second-ranking figures to those meetings) and insisted on having FRETILIN secretary-general Mari Alkatiri sit with Xanana Gusmão and himself in the presidential palace. Lu Olo was not able to convince Xanana to accept the offers made by Alkatiri – although he pledged “not to obstruct” the functioning of institutions and exercise a “constructive opposition”.

FRETILIN tried to make a deal with the other parties. It succeeded in signing an agreement with PD – a party it had long been on cold terms with. KHUNTO also joined the negotiation table only to withdraw at the last minute, apparently because no agreement could be achieved on the share of seats in cabinet. PLP also entertained conversations, but as it was denied its ambition to have the Speaker of the House, it reaffirmed its intention to be in the opposition with a “constructive attitude”.

The rhetoric of “constructive opposition” and the hope the opposition parties would refrain from “obstructing” the functioning of institutions convinced Lu Olo that he could appoint Alkatiri to lead a government. It was a political judgement not grounded on any formal document. All that Alkatiri could do was to present the President and Parliament with the first minority government in Timorese history. To mitigate the lack of support from other parties, Alkatiri invited some “independent” figures (like José Ramos-Horta) and people closely associated with opposition parties to be members of his cabinet “on an individual capacity” –  casting a shadow on the actual meaning of “political parties” in contemporary Timor-Leste, still characterized by strong personality disputes of which parties are extensions.

Also for the first time, the President offered this government not only his institutional backing but also his political support. It was a bold move, perhaps a little too hasty, that bound together the fate of government with that of the president. It remains to be seen whether the fragility of the government does not interfere with the presidential political capacities.

The three opposition parties presented and won (October 19) a rejection motion against the government’s program (35 vs. 30 votes). This was another première: never before had a government been defeated in the House. Alkatiri responded by saying “while some dance in parliament, we shall dance on the streets” – adding another negative note to the prestige of democratic institutions.  Although not formally affected, the prestige of the President was politically tainted for being unable to anticipate and prevent this crisis.

This is how the situation stands as I write. What will come next?

The constitution is a little ambiguous. It states that the government must present its program within 30 days of being inaugurated (implicitly suggesting it will remain as caretaker until the program is decided upon). If the program is rejected (as this one was), the government has a second chance – but there is no explicit deadline, although some constitutionalists argue it should not exceed 30 days. The government has announced – after a great deal of threatening rhetoric – that it will submit a new program by the end of the year – and maybe the opposition will present a rejection motion prior to that if they understand the deadline has been run over (as they are now claiming). If a second rejection wins, then the government falls, and PR Lu Olo will have to take a decision. In my view, he has four options

  • to invite Alkatiri to try another coalition;
  • to invite an “independent” figure to try and form a coalition (in line with what happened with the VI Government);
  • to invite someone from the three opposition parties to try and form a government (and risk being cornered in a “cohabitation” with his rivals);
  • to keep Alkatiri as caretaker until new elections can be held and a new government envisaged

The constitution prevents the dissolution of parliament in the six months following an election, which means that Lu Olo cannot dissolve it before January 22. Then at least 60 days must elapse before the polls are held. And then another month before the parliament is inaugurated and the search for a new government begins. It could be late April before Timor-Leste has a normal government.

The opposition may also allow the passage of the second reading of the government program – having stated clearly that they command the majority in the House and that at any moment they can present a motion of rejection and bring down the government. “Normal” life would ensue – but the fragility of the government would certainly be visible.

How did we come to this precarious and fragile situation? Did the fact that Lu OLo is a party member interfere with the deterioration of the situation?

Immediately after the results of the parliamentary election were announced, FRETILIN claimed the premiership, which it was to accumulate with the presidency. In the previous legislature, CNRT had given up the premiership in order to create a Government of National Inclusion actually headed by a FRETILIN cadre acting as “independent”. Expectations that a similar situation would emerge again were dashed by FRETILIN’s claim. FRETILIN then used its position to claim the Speaker of the House (having the support of KHUNTO, at the time still negotiating its position in a coalition government). So, within a few weeks, a party that controls less than 30% of the vote had accumulated the three most important state roles in the hands of its militants. This concentration of powers generated resentment in a country that has some experience of power-sharing – and the fact that Lu Olo was seen as part of the whole process, rather than as someone who would remain above the party fray as his predecessors had done, did not help to create a more stable situation.

More than in the recent past, the impression one gets from the current situation in Timor-Leste is that institutions (namely the parliament) are a nice stage where little happens – the more important dealings are taking place behind the scenes, and they are dependent on inter-personal rivalries that have re-emerged. Together with those rivalries, “belligerent” democracy – which is not in itself an evil if it means the peaceful coexistence of government and opposition rather than a pot-pourri where everyone has a seat and no one is there to exercise control over the executive – seems to have made a return to Dili. The fact that the new president of the Republic is a member of one of the parties involved in this struggle and has not been able to carve for himself a position in line with his predecessors is, in my view, one of the main reasons why Timor-Leste faces instability once again.

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