Tag Archives: President Taur Matan Ruak

Timor-Leste – Presidential veto causes political tension

President Taur Matan Ruak vetoed the 2016 budget law on 29 December 2015. The president vetoed the law because, in his opinion, the budget disregarded the needs of the poor. Parliament ignored the president’s objections and his veto was overridden without a single dissenting vote.

The adoption of the budget law has been delayed several times. Firstly, the ministers themselves could not agree on the proposed budget and failed to meet the October 15 deadline set by the Budget and Financial Management Law. The government presented the proposed budget to parliament on September 29th 2015.

On 2 December 2015 President Taur Matan Ruak threatened to veto a budget that does not prioritize education, health, agriculture and other sustainable sectors over physical infrastructure. Likewise, civil society groups stated that programs which benefit most people – such as health care, education, agriculture, rural roads and water – were cut, while projects which will be mainly used by the affluent and powerful – airports, highways, oil processing – got a larger share. Physical infrastructure[1] takes up more than a third of Timor-Leste’s budget (see figure below).

 

2016 budget - picSource: http://www.laohamutuk.org

The veto threat provoked considerable discussion in parliament about the president’s constitutional powers. Yet it did not influence the contents of the budget. Timor-Leste’s National Assembly voted unanimously in favour of the budget law on 3 December.

True to his word, the president vetoed the budget law on 29 December. In a six-page letter addressed to parliament, the president reiterated his objections to the (size of the) budget. For its part, parliament ignored the president’s recommendations and an identical budget was unanimously approved on 8 January 2016.

The president can complicate the enactment of legislation by referring it to the court. The constitution of Timor-Leste grants the president power to send legislation to the Court of Appeal (the country’s highest court) to determine whether it violates the constitution. If so, the president can issue a ‘constitutional veto’. Former President José Ramos-Horta, used this power when, for instance, he asked the court to review the constitutionality of the (rectified) 2008 and 2011 budget. A two-thirds majority in parliament is necessary to override a constitutional veto.

President Taur Matan Ruak decided not to send the budget law to the court. Such an act would probably only have postponed the implementation of the budget. To be sure, the president faces a government in which all parties in parliament are represented. So, parliament can easily override a constitutional veto as well.

The president reluctantly promulgated the 2016 budget law on 14 January 2016.

[1] Roads, ports and airports, other infrastructure, and Tasi Mane. The Tasi Mane project involves the development of a petroleum infrastructure on the south coast of Timor-Leste.

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 – President Taur Matan Ruak sends ‘repressive’ media bill to the Court of Appeal

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Until recently, President Taur Matan Ruak made little use of his legislative powers. Yet that changed when Timor-Leste’s National Parliament approved a ‘repressive’ media bill that reportedly poses a serious threat to press freedom in the country. The President requested the Court of Appeal to undertake an anticipatory review of the constitutionality of the parliamentary bill.

President Taur Matan Ruak has largely refrained from using (non)legislative powers to change policy since he took office in May 2012. Unlike his predecessors, Gusmão and Ramos-Horta, he has not criticized government policies in official communiqués, returned bills to Parliament, nor vetoed legislation. Indeed, no major institutional conflicts have occurred between President Taur Matan Ruak and incumbent Prime Minister Gusmão.

Yet the President refused to promulgate the controversial media bill. The bill has been wending its way through the tiers of government for over a year. Timor-Leste’s Council of Ministers approved a draft of the media law in August 2013 and Parliament passed it on 6 May this year, without a dissenting vote. The President however refused to sign it. Instead, he sent it to the Court of Appeal, to ensure that it “will not excessively limit the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution.”

The media bill came under fierce criticism from human right organisations, civil society and journalists’ unions. The bill would create a licensing system for journalists administered by a five-member government-funded press council. Media organisations would be prohibited from employing uncertified journalists. The licensing system would apply to domestic and foreign media outlets, giving the press council the power to deny access to Timor-Leste to foreign correspondents.

Several provisions in the law also allow the government to impose severe constraints on reporting. For instance, it obliges journalists to “promote the national culture” and to “encourage and support high quality economic policies and services.”

On 20 August the Court of Appeal ruled that certain provisions in the bill are in breach of the Constitution. Prime Minister Gusmão, who has been a key promoter of the media bill, is believed to be furious with the Court’s ruling. The Prime Minister had become increasingly irritated by criticism of his government and especially by the local media’s accusations of corruption. He accused them of being unruly, unprofessional and disloyal.

Parliament now has three options:

  1. Do nothing. In this case, the bill “dies”.
  2. Revise it in order to address the Court’s objections, and perhaps make other changes, and pass it again.
  3. Re-pass the bill without any changes. To pass a bill over the President’s and the Court’s objections requires a two-thirds vote of members present in Parliament.

It is believed that the parliamentary majority will accept the ruling of the Court and the President. President Taur Matan Ruak has strong support among local journalists and he seems convinced not to allow the law to pass as it stands or risk alienation from the press which is an important ally he has and may be needed in the future to advance his claims.

The President can still veto a revised bill on political grounds. Parliament, however, can override a political veto with a simple majority.