Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: The president dissolves the Assembly

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of the Institute for Contemporary History, New University of Lisboa

Over the last year or so, Timor-Leste has been confronted with a significant number of political novelties, the positive effects of which are reflected in the last Freedom House index “Freedom in the World” where the country has finally moved into the club of “Free Countries”. If the move has long been expected, the reasons evoked –  the success of the 2017 round of elections – are far less so.

Major changes started roughly a year ago when the two largest forces in the country – the historical Fretilin and the charismatic leader Xanana’s CNRT – joined forces in the first round of the presidential elections to support the candidacy of the chairman of Fretilin. In the previous three elections, the two forces had opposed each other, and twice (2007, 2012) they had faced each other (if only by proxy in terms of “independent” candidates supported by CNRT) in the electoral run-off. In 2017, however, the fact that the two parties supported a “Government of National Inclusion” formed in early 2015 and expected to last well into the next legislature, created a different situation. Francisco Guterres Lu Olo easily won the presidency in the March election. He was the first President to be affiliated to a political party.

Legislative elections were held in late July, and the parties supporting the outgoing government (except for the small Frenti-Mudança) did well, winning close to 70% of the vote. Fretilin was the winner by a mere 1,000 votes. Two new parties – one formed by the outgoing president, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), before leaving office (PLP), and KHUNTO, whose roots are in the new generation and has close links to important martial arts groups – both of which opposed the strategic options of the government, obtained 10.6 and 6.4. percent respectively. It would seem that the conditions were ripe for the continuation of the Government of National Inclusion.

However, one of the critical conditions for the creation of such a government – that the old guard, the Gerasaun Tuan of those who had lived the critical period of 1974-76, would gave way to the Gerasaun Foun of those who came of age under Indonesian occupation – was soon questioned when Fretilin’s secretary general and actual leader, Mari bin Amude Alkatiri, claimed the right to be appointed prime minister. Both CNRT and PLP declared they would rather sit in the opposition, and spoke vaguely of providing confidence and supply to Fretilin’s executive.

Fretilin announced it would seek a broad coalition, but faced great difficulties when it came to talking to Xanana and TMR. With two major players now feeling free to act against the government, President Lu Olo felt compelled to intervene and promoted a meeting in the presidential palace with himself, Xanana, TMR and Alkatiri. But he was not able to convince Xanana or TMR to accept Alkatiri’s terms, nor was Alkatiri willing to change his mind on the conditions under which he would form a coalition with CNRT and/or PLP.

Fretilin negotiated then with two smaller parties: PD (a member of the last three executives) and the newcomer KHUNTO. While negotiations were happening, the three of them joined forces to elect the Speaker of the House, a member of Fretilin. But further agreement could not be found with KHUNTO, and it abandoned negotiations. As a result of this brief period of collaboration with KHUNTO, Fretilin – which had polled just under 30% of the vote – managed to control the three leading figures of the state – PR, PM and Speaker of the House. This is in sharp contrast with the recent history of institutional equilibrium and power-sharing in which “independent” presidents had a major role.

Lu Olo invited Alkatiri to form a government. When he came back with his government proposal, it was based on an agreement with PD alone, which together were supported by 30 out of 65 seats in the House. Thus, it was a minority executive. At that time, the three other parties had not yet formed an alternative alliance, which offered some room for a positive expectation regarding the minority government. The president could nevertheless have asked Alkatiri to find a sounder basis for his government by including members of the opposition parties (PLP expelled two of its militants who accepted jobs in the government) as well as respected independent figures like former PR and PM José Ramos-Horta (JRH). However, the leader of Fretilin insisted on moving ahead with the minority government, admitting that either the opposition would not block the way in the House, or that some opposition MPs would defy their party’s stance and abstain. So, on 15 September, Lu Olo agreed to put all his political (and not merely institutional) weight behind a government that was sworn in that day.

The Constitution offers presidents room for the choice of the prime minister (as JRH did in 2007 and TMR in 2015), but it stipulates that the government must undergo a parliamentary investiture vote. The government must present its program before the House within 30 days of being sworn in (Art. 108.2), and during that period it is merely caretaker cabinet not being entitled to take major political decisions. There is no mandatory vote on the program, but both the opposition and the government may take action: the former proposing the rejection of the program, the latter proposing a vote of confidence (Art. 109). In Dili, in October 2017, the opposition – now formally comprising CNRT, PLP and KHUNTO which had formed a Aliança para uma Maioria Parlamentar /Aliance for a Parliamentary Majority – AMP) – moved to reject the government’s program and it won 35 to 30 votes. For the first time in Timorese history, the government lost a vote in the House. However, the Constitution offers new governments a second change of submitting a revised program before it implies its dismissal (Art. 112 d.).

So far, all was within the constitutional boundaries. Henceforth, the process would derail and move into wild institutional territory. Although the Constitution does not explicitly refer to any deadline for the second presentation of the government’s program, it is assumed that it cannot take longer than the original period of thirty days. Alkatiri, however, suggested he would need ”until the end of the year” (i.e., two-and-a-half months) to resubmit its program. More than that, he assumed the government was fully invested (which was a false premise) and capable of full powers. In this vein, he submitted a revision of the state budget – something that clearly goes beyond the powers of a caretaker government. In the end, the AMP parties used their majority to block such move. This governmental attitude was to be seen in other initiatives. For instance, in late January, the vice-minister for Education (Lurdes Bessa) decided to alter the legislation on a sensitive issue – the use of native languages in school – arguing that “this may be our last bill but until the last day of this government we are working hard”. This position is not supported because it has not been supported by a parliamentary investiture vote.

Once a month had elapsed since the rejection of the first program, and without any signs that a second version would be presented on time, AMP tabled a motion of no-confidence, which, if approved by an absolute majority of MPs, would bring the government down at once (Art. 112 f.). President Lu Olo could also consider that the government was in breach of its constitutional duties and dismissed it in order to “secure the regular functioning of institutions” which was patently the case.

The most unexpected event was still to take place: the Speaker of the House refused to set a date for the plenary session to discuss and vote on the no-confidence motion, which in the overwhelming majority of parliaments takes precedence over other matters. Before such a situation, the opposition tabled a motion to revoke the Speaker’s mandate, in accordance with the House’s regulation (approved a few years ago with the active support of the current Speaker). The Speaker referred the issue to the Courts, where he lost in the first instance, but then made an appeal (still pending).

In order to try and ease the growing tension which was being fuelled by radical rhetoric from both camps and by the clear deviation of National Parliament from its powers, the Speaker took two initiatives: in late December he wrote to the PM asking for the new government program to be submitted “within the next thirty days”; and he set a date – with the approval of the government – to discuss and vote the rejection motion for 31 January 2018, that is, two full months after it had been presented, suggesting that a rejection motion should be voted at the government’s discretion and not as a priority matter.

This sequence of events constitutes an attempt to reduce the role of Parliament in the equilibrium of powers inscribed in the constitution, and it reveals that institutions are not functioning according to the law. As such, it offered ample grounds for the President to intervene, force the dismissal of government, and consider other alternatives: he could have invited the outgoing PM to try to reach another, broader agreement; he could have appointed an independent formateur to try to build a majority coalition including Fretilin; or he could have offered AMP a chance to form a government. He chose otherwise not to interfere, as his power to dissolve the parliament was curtailed until January 22, 2018, that is, exactly six months after the last parliamentary election. And early elections rather than a solution within the incumbent parliament was Fretlin’s preferred choice for resolving the political crisis in Dili.

On January 23, Lu Olo called all the parliamentary parties as it is his duty before dissolving the House; next day he summoned the first meeting of the Council of State, an advisory organ whose opinion he is bound to seek, even if the Council has no binding powers (Art. 86 f.). And on 26th January he announced on TV that for the first time the parliament was dissolved and fresh elections would be called (though a date has not been set).

The Chairman of the National Electoral Commission has stated that he is preparing the “machinery” for early elections (implying, among others, an update of the voting register), and suggested that more than the constitutionally necessary sixty days would be preferable to guarantee a modicum of quality in the electoral process. So, for the first time Timor-Leste will experience early elections somewhere between late March and May 2018 – and a new, fully installed government is likely to see the light of day around a year after the last parliamentary elections. As the country has not passed a state budget for 2018, it must live with a copy of the 2017 one – and this may generate several problems, not least in the amount of money spent on the electoral process. It will take the goodwill of the opposition to vote in favour of various budgetary measures necessary to finance the electoral process.

It is unclear whether the current government parties will form a pre-electoral coalition or not, or whether AMP will run alone. However, a new entity has been formed: 9 smaller parties who failed to pass the 4% threshold, but who together polled about 10% created the Forum Democrático Nacional/ National Democratic Forum – FDN). If they run as a pre-electoral coalition they may contribute to the rise in the number of parliamentary parties (in theory, by running together they might get one seat each) – and they have been severe critics of Fretilin and the way the process has evolved. If they run as FDN, life is likely to be more difficult for Fretilin.

President Lu Olo chose not interfere when Mari Alkatiri failed to secure majority support in parliament (but then again, minority governments are legitimate). Later, when the process of the government investiture in parliament went completely off the track stipulated by the Constitution of Timor-Leste., he was deaf to cries that instability was threatening social peace, and that the economic rate of growth was slowing down significantly on account of instability and uncertainty of the political process. His silence and inaction was only broken when his party was about to suffer a number of humiliating defeats in the House (rejection of government, recall of the Speaker).

Lu Olo’s recent (in)actions were clearly in tune with the options of his own party  (favouring early elections) and in this way he broke with the traditional position of presidents in the Timorese system, who are not supposed to interfere in the party political arena. The future of his presidency hinges, thus, on the results of the legislative elections. Should Fretilin win, or at least be in a position to lead the future government, he will have a peaceful presidency, and his behaviour in the last months will be vindicated; should, however, the fate of Fretilin be different, he will have to face a period of true cohabitation with a group of parties and personalities whose rhetoric against the way he has behaved is quite aggressive – and he may feel the loneliness of the Presidential Palace.

Let’s just hope that elections will be free, fair, and peaceful.

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