Tag Archives: government of national unity

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).

Timor-Leste – GNU requires close presidential oversight

In February this year President Taur Matan Ruak swore in a government of national unity (GNU). In my previous post on Timor-Leste, I explained that the GNU comprises all major political parties, including the single opposition party FRETILIN. The absence of an opposition thus imposes extra responsibility on the President to oversee the performance of the government and parliament, including the 2016 budget which will be sent for his approval soon.

Yet, President Ruak has demonstrated to be a relatively passive participant in the day-to-day political affairs of the state. Being the guardian of the Constitution, an important task of the president is to prevent the executive branch from encroaching on the power of the judiciary. Be that as it may, President Ruak did not take a strong critical stance against the government when in October 2014 resolutions were used as a means to dismiss and expel foreign judges, prosecutors, defenders and other international advisors working in Timor-Leste’s judicial system. The stated legal basis for the resolutions was force majeure and the need to protect the national interest. The government lost a number of tax cases against foreign oil companies and believed that the incompetence of the foreign judges or even corruption were behind the adverse tax decisions. Yet others associated the government’s decision with corruption cases in which government members were allegedly involved. The Asia Foundation and Amnesty International strongly denounced the act, calling it an attack on the independence of the judiciary and the Constitution of Timor-Leste. The President’s reaction was limited to an address to the nation in which he called on the government to respect the independence of judiciary.

That said, President Ruak did intervene after the government approved the media law that according to Human Right Watch and national NGOs tried to curtail the freedom of expression. Even though the bill was passed unanimously in Timor-Leste’s parliament, the President decided to request the Court to review the constitutionality of the bill. After the Court ruled that certain provisions in the law were unconstitutional, the bill was returned to the national parliament.

Soon the controversial 2016 budget will be discussed in parliament, which needs the President’s signature to become law. The 2016 budget does not reduce state spending despite slower economic growth. Analysts have repeatedly warned that the extravagant state expenditures are unsustainable. Yet, major changes in the budget are unlikely. Since the rapprochement between the political rivals Gusmão and FRETILIN, the former opposition party has unanimously backed the 2013, 2014 and 2015 budgets. Now that FRETILIN member Araújo heads the government there is little chance that FRETILIN lawmakers will reject the 2016 budget. The absence of an opposition, therefore, imposes great responsibility on the shoulders of President Ruak to scrutinise the budget.

To date the President has not used his power to criticise or (to threaten) to veto the budget and is unlikely to do so in the near future. By comparison, former President José Ramos-Horta has been far more critical of the government’s fiscal performance. It is an open secret that Ramos-Horta lost the support of Gusmão’s CNRT party during the 2012 presidential campaign precisely because of his criticism of the growing budgets. In 2017 presidential elections will be held in Timor-Leste. To secure a second term in office, President Ruak will need the support of (one of) the ruling parties.

Timor-Leste – The new unity government

On 16 February President Taur Matan Ruak swore in a unity government following the resignation of former PM Xanana Gusmão, founder and leader of the ruling National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party. The CNRT nominated Rui Araújo, member of Timor-Leste’s opposition party, FRETILIN, for the post of prime minister. The net effect of the government reshuffle is that Timor-Leste no longer has an opposition party in parliament.

Gusmão has been the face of Timor-Leste since independence in 2002. As a former resistance fighter he was the main leader of the independence movement against the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999). Gusmão was the first president of post-independent Timor-Leste (2002-2007) and served as prime minister since 2007.

Gusmão’s CNRT party won the 2012 parliamentary election and formed a coalition with two smaller parties – the Democratic Party (PD) and FRETILIN splinter party, Frenti-Mudanca (FM). Together, the coalition government occupied 40 seats in the 65-member assembly. FRETILIN became the single opposition party with 25 seats. At the time, the CNRT explicitly rejected FRETILIN’s proposal to form a broad-based coalition, which led to violent protests by FRETILIN supporters and clashes with security forces in July 2012.

Given that after Gusmão’s resignation President Taur Matan Ruak did not call for fresh parliamentary elections the party composition in parliament remains unchanged. In other words, the newly formed unity government now holds all seats in parliament and, consequently, there is no opposition party that can hold the government to account.

The fact that Gusmão has tendered his resignation does not come as a surprise, however. Gusmão has stated several times not to stay on as prime minister until the 2017 parliamentary electies.

Yet Gusmão’s move to pick his successor from opposition party FRETILIN is, at minimum, extraordinary. During the independence struggle Gusmão and members of FRETILIN were already political rivals. Conflicts between both camps continued and were ‘institutionalised’ during a period of cohabitation (2002-2006) when Gusmão was elected President and the secretary-general of FRETILIN, Marí Alkatiri, Prime Minister.[1] Also as an opposition party FRETILIN waged a political battle against Gusmão’s CNRT coalition government, accusing it of corruption and gross financial mismanagement. So, bringing FRETILIN into government may ease the young nation’s often fraught politics.

PM Araújo is Timor-Leste’s fifth post-independence PM. He served as Heath Minister under the United Nations Transitional Administration (2001-2002) and under the FRETILIN government (2002-2007). After the CNRT won the parliamentary elections in 2007, Araújo worked as a policy advisor at the Ministry of Finance.

PM Araújo’s explanation for the government reshuffle was that Timor-Leste is too small for divisive politics. ‘The pool of talent is very limited,’ he said. ‘We came to the realisation . . . we have to call everybody who is willing and who is capable of contributing to the development of this country to participate in the government.’

The question remains why the top job went to a FRETILIN member and not to a member of one of the ruling parties. Some speculate that political infighting between CNRT, PD and FM about the PM’s position gave way for the new coalition between CNRT and FRETILIN. Only recently, the leaders of the PD and FM declared not to be sure whether to support the new PM.

So whether the unity government will be a stable government is an open question. For instance, what happens if the new Prime Minister and old Prime Minister – now Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment – disagree? Another important question is how the parties in the same government will run against each other in the 2017 parliamentary election.

Structure of the VI Constitutional Government

Prime Minister Rui Araújo FRETILIN
Minister of State and of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers Ágio Pereira CNRT
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of Education Fernando LaSama de Araújo PD
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs and Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Estanislau da Silva FRETILIN
Minister of State, Coordinating Minister of State Administration Affairs and Justice and Minister of State Administration Dionísio Babo Soares CNRT
Minister of Finance Santina Cardoso Independent
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Hernâni Coelho FRETILIN
Minister of Justice Ivo Valente CNRT
Minister of Health Maria do Céu Pina daCosta CNRT
Minister of Social Solidarity Isabel Guterres Independent
Minister of Commerce, Industry and Environment António da Conceição PD
Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Francisco Kalbuady Lay CNRT
Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communication Gastão de Sousa PD
Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Alfredo Pires CNRT
Minister of Defence Cirilo Cristóvão CNRT
Minister of the Interior Longuinhos Monteiro Independent
Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment Xanana Gusmão CNRT


[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.

Afghanistan – The government of national unity in crisis over electoral reform


In September 2014, after months of deadlock over the contested electoral results, the two presidential candidates signed a power-sharing deal to protect national unity, introducing the office of the Chief Executive. The relationship between Ashraf Ghani, President, and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive, has not always been rosy with frequent conflicts erupting between the two highest offices of the state. The latest chapter in this troubled relationship is the conflict over electoral reform. There is a shared agreement that electoral reform is of fundamental importance in order to ensure a fair electoral process on the occasion of the next Parliamentary election which will take place in September 2015. Last Thursday, Abdullah declared that the upcoming parliamentary election must not be held unless the national electoral system, which he forcefully criticised during the negotiations for the power-sharing agreement in 2014, is changed.

After becoming the leaders of the National Unity Government, Ghani and Abdullah promised to reform the electoral system in order to prevent crises in future elections. Some amendments are under discussion in the Parliament, in particular in the appointment process and responsibilities of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Further changes include statutes making the IEC a temporary body only formed during election time, requiring members of the commission to go through a re-appointment process in a bid to boost their accountability.

However, these changes are not considered to be enough by law experts, MPs and by foreign donors. Members of the Judicial Commission of the House of Representatives are strongly in favor of further reform. ‘Afghanistan was not brought to crisis by Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, but Afghanistan was brought to crisis by the corruption of the electoral commissions,’ said Muhammad Abdo, a member of the Parliament’s Judicial Commission, referring to the period of uncertainty prior to the formation of the National Unity Government.

Also foreign donors and international institutions are calling for extensive reform. The report by EU chief observer, Thijs Berman, released in December 2014, makes several recommendations, calling for an independent board to nominate all members of Afghanistan’s IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). The report argues that investigation mechanisms around electoral offenses and corruption need to be reinforced and that a biometric voter identification data base should be introduced. Also, measures to ensure that women have access to secure and appropriate polling locations, led by female staff, should be implemented.

Abdullah agrees with the necessity of boosting the reform, not surprisingly as the IEC and the ECC were both accused by him during the election to have conspired in favor of his rival Ashraf Ghani winning the presidential race. Mujeebul Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for the Chief Executive, recalled that the reform of Afghanistan’s election laws and electoral commissions was a precondition to Abdullah’s acceptance of the power-sharing plan with Ghani. ‘Reform in the electoral system, election laws and election institutions – who were directly involved in the fraud – was among the preconditions to the formation of the national unity government,’ Mr. Rahimi declared on Thursday. ‘Reform in the electoral system is important, and without it, there will be no elections’ he added.

However, there is uncertainty over how and what the reform should change. Mr. Rahimi declared that the main reason behind the delay in reform is disagreement between Ghani and Abdullah over ‘reform details’. In particular, ‘regarding the creation of an electoral reform commission, the President Ghani’s opinion was that the commission should be created after the announcement of the cabinet, but our [meaning the Office of the Chief Executive, Mr. Abdullah] preference was to create it after the inauguration and it should have started its work and should not have been related to the cabinet’.

Also, despite agreeing on the necessity of reforming the system, the IEC is calling for caution. The IEC’s commissioner Sareer Ahmad Barmak declared that nobody including the President could fire the IEC commissioners unless they prove the crimes of IEC officials. ‘Reforms are required both in the electoral system and the structure of the election commission,’ Barmak said, however adding that ‘some personal reforms are also being proposed from outside which is intolerable for us’. Moreover, commentators maintain that MPs do not have the legal right to change the election laws this year. ‘Based on the law, the House does not have the right to bring changes to the electoral law during the last year of their tenure,’ university professor Tahir Hashemi told, adding that ‘they can bring changes in the appointment, jurisdiction and authorities of the electoral commissions.’

There is a widespread concern that the gridlock over the reform could spark further uncertainty in the country, to the point of bringing about protests and disorder should the upcoming parliamentary election be held under the same law. Fuelling possible popular distrust and lack of confidence in the electoral process, there are rumors that the members of the electoral commissions are holding meetings with MPs to dissuade them from supporting the legislation by promising favors in exchange for upcoming elections.