Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste after the parliamentary elections: Cohabitation in sight

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

In March 2017, breaking with the established conventions following the first three elections in independent Timor-Leste (2002, 2007, 2012), voters returned a president, Francisco Guterres (known as Lú-Olo), who was affiliated with a political party – Fretilin. Guterres was chairman of the party, which is an honorary position rather than an executive one, reserved for the secretary-general. Although President Guterres claimed in his inauguration speech that he would serve as “the president of all the Timorese”, like his predecessors, he did not relinquish his position in his party.

In the July 2017 legislative elections, the president’s party, which had campaigned for the continuation of a broad coalition which included all parliamentary parties to date, topped the poll by a mere 1,000 votes over the country’s historic leader Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT party. Surprisingly, the parties that had created the outgoing “Government of National Inclusion” could not agree to continue it and Lú-Olo appointed the first minority government, composed of Fretilin and Partido Democrático / Democratic Party (PD), who had the support of only 30 of the House 65 seats. The VII Constitutional Government failed to secure its investiture in the National Parliament, and after several months of political confrontation (see my post of January 30), fresh elections were called for 12 May 2018. During this period, Lú-Olo sided openly with his party – first, trying to set up a minority government of which there was no previous experience in Timor-Leste; then, keeping it in power as a caretaker government (i.e., not fully invested) for a long period; and finally, denying the opposition that had formed a majority coalition a chance to form a government, and dissolving the parliament. These were high stakes, and the political status of the president became dependent on the voters’ decisions.

On May 12, voters turned out in very high numbers (officially over 80% voted). Fretilin gained votes, going from 29.7 to 34.2 per cent, but could not improve on its 23 seats. Its ally, PD, suffered a loss from 9.8 to 8 per cent, and reduced its representation from 7 to 5 MPs. The combined vote of the member parties of the Aliança de Mudança para o Progresso / Alliance for a Developmental Change (AMP) increased 46.5 to 49.6 percent, losing one seat but retaining an overall majority of 34. The remaining three seats were won by another coalition of smaller parties, which polled 5.5 per cent. The fact that the number of parties/coalitions on the ballot paper in 2018 fell from 22 to just 8 allowed a group of 4 smaller parties running together to reach the 4% threshold for election. The percentage of votes gained by parties that failed to secure a seat fell from 14.1 to just 6.7 per cent. This had an impact in the overall distribution of seats, and account for why an increase in the vote did not translate into a comparable gain of seats both for Fretilin and AMP.

The campaign was conducted with high passion. Few incidents were registered, though, and international observers returned the verdict of a “free and fair” election. However, a few days after results were officially proclaimed, Fretilin filed a protest with the Court of Appeals, claiming to have proof of “electoral crimes”. This protest may delay the inauguration of the new parliament, and is testimony to the high level of political confrontation that is currently marking the situation in Dili.

Xanana Gusmão, who was president from 2002 to 2007, prime minister from 2007 to 2015, and minister in the “Government of National Inclusion” (2015-2017) is scheduled to return as prime minister of the VIII Constitutional Government. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether this government will be based solely on the three parties that constitute the AMP (Xanana’s CNRT; the previous president Taur Matan Ruak’s Partido da Libertação do Povo / People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and KHUNTO), or whether it will be willing to enlarge its support base in parliament. Fretilin assumed it had lost and would become an opposition party. PD is “considering its position”, but is not certain of being offered a position in government. The same holds for the coalition that secured three seats. In any case, Fretlin with its 23 seats is capable of denying any government the two-thirds majority required to eventually overturn any presidential vetoes (namely on the budget and on basic legislation on education, health and social security, as well as all the items contemplated in section 95 of the constitution).

President Lú-Olo addressed this issue on the occasion of the first anniversary of his election (and the sixteenth of the proclamation on independence), recalling that he had sworn to be faithful to the constitution and exercise the full range of powers invested in him. Moreover, he declared that an overall majority may result in the formation of a new government, but that he would not grant the government a “a blank cheque”. Rather, the government would have to comply with “national interests” of which the president is supposed to be the guarantor and interpreter. In a way, Lú-Olo was responding to Xanana and Taur Matan Ruak who said that “the president must act as the leader of the nation and not as the chairman of Fretilin”. Lú-Olo may be willing to explore the full scope of presidential powers on a scale never witnessed before, while respecting the letter of the constitution.

Xanana is known to favour a generational turnover, and for a long time he was the main force behind the idea of a “Government of National Inclusion”. It is uncertain how he will face his new task as prime minister, whether as one that will engage him for the duration of the legislature, or as a sort of interim solution before the re-composition of political forces has the chance to settle down in a more permanent form. In fact, one of the major features of these elections was the return to the forefront of historical leaders (the Gerasaun Tuan, the old generation) such as Mari Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta (who campaigned for Fretilin) and Xanana or Taur Matan Ruak (although the letter is perhaps a bridge to the Gerasaun Foun, the younger generation of people who became adults under the Indonesian occupation). Personalities are still powerful political forces, and parties tend to play a secondary role. This makes the political situation less transparent, as the mood among those historical leaders tends to float significantly.

Unless a new, unexpected development takes place, the stage is set for the first formal cohabitation between a president who is member of a political party and is willing to use the full breadth of his constitutional powers, and a prime minister who heads a government in which the president’s party is not present – moreover, a government which considers the president’s party to be the leader of the opposition. The scars of the president’s attitude during the period following the previous elections, when he sided openly with his party and made no openings to the majority opposition are still visible. Lú-Olo played a high-risk game, and electors did not support his view that Fretilin should return to lead the government. Developments after the votes were counted suggest that cohabitation will entail some degree of friction between the president and the new government. The fact that Taur Matan Ruak while serving as president vetoed a budget in 2015, and has kept a critical view of the orientation followed by the “Government of National Inclusion” in which Fretilin discharged critical functions, raises questions as to the platform that will sustain the new government. It is likely to produce a budget that Fretilin will oppose. A major test of the cohabitation between president and government may not be too far away, as the political crisis of last year prevented the approval of the budget for 2018 and this is now a top priority in the country.

For all those who follow the debate on semi-presidentialism and its varieties, and who are interested in the study of presidential power, Timor-Leste is likely to be a crucial case in the coming years.

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