Tag Archives: Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste – “Belligerent cohabitation” at work

One week after the parliamentary elections that returned an absolute majority for the AMP coalition (comprising former president Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, former president Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP and a youth-oriented KHUNTO) but awarded the current president’s Fretilin the largest bloc of seats in the House (the party being unable to capitalize on its five percentage points increase in the number of votes due to a different composition of running parties), president Lu Olo addressed the nation on the occasion of the 16thanniversary of the restoration of independence (and the first of his assuming the presidency). In his speech, Lu Olo made three very important points

  1. He claimed he would discharge his functions as “president of all Timorese” but would not give up his position as chairman of his own party. This was no more than the confirmation that for the first time Timor-Leste would have a president who is aligned with one specific party, all his predecessors having been “independent” without party ties (although two of them did form their own parties after stepping down, in order to run for the seemingly more powerful premiership);
  2. He stated he would be particularly attentive to “the national interest” of which he argued the president is the highest and more authoritative interpreter;
  3. He reaffirmed is willingness to use all the constitutional powers at his disposal, contradicting those who expected that after a significant political defeat (he called early elections that did not change the nature of the distribution of power among competing parties and his own party failed to secure the bases to form or integrate the new government) he would assume a lower profile

In brief: Lu Olo made it plainly clear his would be a very active presidency not shying away from confrontations when he would feel it necessary to intervene. He was comforted by the fact that a substantial number of cases to overturn a presidential veto require a two-thirds majority  – and his party had more than one third of the parliamentary seats. Cohabitation was emerging under the sign of “belligerent democracy”. A sign of this general attitude was Fretilin´s decision to threaten with expulsion any militant who might be tempted to accept a place in government in a “personal and technical capacity” as had been current in the country for over a decade. A new era is definitively making itself present, eventually making political decisions more transparent and in line with normal expectations on parties’ behaviour.

The first serious confrontation occurred with the formation of the VIII Constitutional Government. Contrary to early expectations (based on declarations in the aftermath of the elections), Xanana declined to assume the premiership, entrusting the job to Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), leader of a much smaller party (8 seats versus 21), and reserved for himself the role of “state minister councillor to the prime minister”. TMR was sworn in as prime minister and proposed to the president a cabinet with 41 full ministers and junior ministers. Lu Olo rejected 12 of those names. One of them was personally close to the new prime-minister, and the refusal was explained on strict bureaucratic terms: as he was serving in the high command of the armed forces, he would need his resignation from the previous post to go through the necessary legal steps. In due course, he was appointed to serve as minister for defence. As for the other 11 – all of whom belonged to Xanana’s CNRT, the only party in the coalition with government experience – the reason given was that two of them had not “the right moral profile” and the others were supposedly under investigation by the judicial authorities on corruption charges.

Although the president denied that he had vetoed names, but only “called the attention of the prime minister” to situations that might harm the public opinion on the government, he also claimed he “was intent on reinforcing the judicial system” by not granting immunity to some politicians that had, in the past, benefitted from their status to avoid immediate prosecution (an allegation directed at Xanana who, as prime minister, had asked parliament to keep some of his ministers under conditions of immunity till the end of their terms). Regarding the use of his powers, he said: “The choice of ministers belongs to the majority in the House. The president may not say that this one is more capable than the other. He has to wait and see, only later can he interfere”. But at some point, he can actually interfere by refusing to appoint ministers.

Lu Olo’s interference in the composition of government generated a first moment of tension within the coalition. The prime minister seems to have accepted the president’s opposition to empowering individuals tainted with corruption charges in a country where this is a critical issue as constitutionally and politically warranted, and showed signs of pressing his coalition partner to propose new names.  TMR was also prisoner of his own public rejection of a minister when the V Government was formed soon after his election for the presidency back in 2012, and thus very limited in his capacity to deny Lu Olo the power to reject some of his ministers. Xanana, on the other hand, received the news as a personal attack, and reacted angrily: he and few other ministers from his party failed to take the oath, leaving the government with sensitive portfolios without their ministers. Besides the strong portfolio entrusted to Xanana, the minister for finances is among those remaining vacant due to presidential opposition. In parallel, he mounted an attack on the president. On the one hand, he claimed he had received undue payments from the state related to his presidential campaign – an accusation that failed to gain traction; on the other, he claimed that not only was the president disregarding the principle of presumption of innocence, but that he had acted in a completely different manner when Mari Alkatiri presented the composition of the VII Government in which four members were also under judicial investigation. He also made public statements from judicial authorities allegedly denying the basis for the president’s attitude.

In the meantime, arguing the inconvenience of the absence of the president from the country at a time when there was only “half a government”, the National Parliament denied the president’s request to undertake a state visit to Portugal which had been scheduled for quite a while. This move was openly criticized by the commander in chief of the armed forces, a move that does not bode well for the neutrality they are supposed to keep, and add a new player to an already confusing situation

The VIII Constitutional government, which is ruling under the provisions of the 2017 state budget in 1/12 monthly instalments, approved a piece of emergency legislation destined to raise funds from the Petroleum Fund in order to meet its financial obligations. However, the sum in question is above the Estimated Sustainable Income of the fund, and expectations are high that the president might use his veto power to put additional pressure on the government, which might be unable to meet its monthly obligations (and therefore suffer in its level of popularity)

At the time of writing, time is ticking for the government to present its program before the House, which must occur within thirty days of the appointment of the prime minister (22 June). Devoid of key ministers, the prime minister has conducted cabinet meetings open to those who have been rejected by the president to help with drafting the program. It is not clear what will happen if the deadline is broken, but grounds might emerge for the president to consider that political institutions are not performing adequately – a case allowing for the dismissal of the prime minister

The tension between the president of the republic and the leader of the winning coalition is unprecedented. It rests to be seen whether Lu Olo and his party are not attempting a political move to break the coalition between Xanana and TMR, who appears to be more sensitive to the president’s arguments on corruption, and suggest a change of horses: Fretilin might be prepared to switch the leadership of the opposition with CNRT. In Dili, voices are heard calling for yet another dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, which in any case could not be decided before mid-November to be held in 2019.

The present situation in Timor-Leste has revealed that presidential powers, even though they may be dormant for a while, do not lapse by virtue of not being exercised. And presidential powers in the country are superior to what much of the literature has argued so far. Critically, the dual responsibility of the government before the parliament and the president of the republic (stated in section 107 of the Constitution), and the ways in which this prescription can legitimately be understood by a proactive president, require new consideration. Ultimately, the scope of effective powers of the president may be regarded as the reason for the current instability, much as the argument has been made for president-parliamentary systems.

The fact that Lu Olo seems to be adopting a proactive role should not be isolated from the fact that he is the first president who discharges his functions at the same time that he holds a high position in a political party – Fretilin – which is not represented in TMR’s government. The effective experience of cohabitation in its formal sense is a novelty, as the first three presidents were “independent”. Their terms were comparably more stable that the early part of Lu Olo’s term (disregarding the case of the 2006 crisis which had deeper roots), adding weight to the suggestion that the political wisdom of choosing non-partisan presidents reduced the prospects and the scope of confrontation that the constitutional model of dual responsibility of the executive might facilitate. With the decision to move away from the legacy of the previous experience, Timor-Leste is now confronted with a much more unstable situation.

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.

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.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: is Díli on (Political) Fire Again?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Almost nine months after the election of the fourth President of the Republic, the first to be won by a President affiliated to a political party (FRETILIN) and to benefit from a pre-first round major party coalition, and four and a half months after FRETILIN narrowly won the legislative elections (by a mere thousand votes over Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, both winning just under 30% of the vote), Timor-Leste does not yet have a fully invested government and political tensions are running higher than at any point since the crisis of 2006.

The coalition between FRETILIN and CNRT to elect Lu Olo on the first round of the presidential election was unprecedented in a country that was more used to seeing first ballots contested by partisan and “independent” candidates alike and to seeing informal agreements being made for the run-off poll. However, the coalition was a natural consequence of political developments that marked the previous electoral cycle.

Having won a plurality in 2012, Xanana returned as PM supported by his allies who had won seats in parliament. Immediately he started working towards a new political solution that would encompass the historical party FRETILIN, around which a “cordon sanitaire” had been erected after the 2006 crisis. The state budgets for 2013 and 2014 were approved unanimously and FRETILIN’s leader was offered a significant position as head of a Special Region. Allegedly supported by President Taur Matan Ruak (aka TMR), the converging paths of the parliamentary parties were hailed by a senior minister as the “replacement of belligerent democracy by consensus democracy” (Agio Pereira). In early 2015 Xanana stepped aside for the formation of a “Government of National Inclusion”. This was headed by Rui Maria de Araújo, a former “independent” minister and member of the Council of State, who had since joined the ranks of FRETILIN, a party that was “offered” several other key ministers in the government “in their individual and technical capacities”, without formally signing an agreement (instead, it maintained the status of “opposition” party without giving this any substantial meaning).[i]

The policies of the “Government of National Inclusion”, however, came under severe criticism from President TMR, who declined to seek a second term in office, created his own political party (PLP – Partido da Libertação do Povo), and fought the legislative elections, obtaining about 12% of the vote and 8 seats in parliament. The four parties that had supported the government ran campaigns that failed to criticise ongoing strategic decisions and it was expected that the basic the government formula would be maintained after the polls. In the end, one of those parties failed to pass the 4% threshold and won no seats, while PLP and another young party – KHUNTO – secured their presence in parliament.

Immediately after the results were announced, FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri claimed the premiership for his party (and actually, for himself), thus substantially altering the conditions under which the previous government had been negotiated. Both TMR and Xanana said that they would serve in the opposition and that neither would take their seats in parliament. They also pledged, rather vaguely, to follow a “constructive opposition” and “not to obstruct” the functioning of government.

As he summoned the three leaders to a joint meeting, President Lu Olo must have felt rather insecure, given that the consultations that he was constitutionally obliged to make had been attended by second-line figures from the parties. He failed to convince TMR and Xanana to accept Alkatiri’s terms – or to convince Alkatiri to accept theirs. But a door was open for Alkatiri: to secure an agreement with a junior party in the previous government (PD, 7 seats) and the newcomer KHUNTO (5 seats).

President Lu Olo appointed Alkatiri as prime minister, that is, designated him as a formateur. Early conversations suggested Alkatiri would be successful – and in this context, the three parties joined forces to elect the Speaker of the House. But KHUNTO did not accept the deal it was being proposed and withdrew from the negotiations. Alkatiri could only present President Lu Olo with a minority government formed by FRETILIN and PD.

President Lu Olo took the bold initiative of accepting Alkatiri’s proposal, and formalized the appointment of the very first minority government in Timor-Leste’s history (16 September). Alkatiri tried to minimize the risks for his government by inviting respected “independent” figures (such as former PM and President, Ramos-Horta) and prominent members of the opposition parties (such as Xanana’s right hand man, Agio Pereira) to be “State Ministers”.

The Timorese Constitution facilitates the possibility of minority governments. It stipulates that within a month of being sworn in, the government must present its program to the House – which it did on 16 October. Then the House has three days for debate, at the end of which the government will be invested unless the opposition tables a rejection motion or it feels the political (not constitutional) need to present a confidence motion. If the confidence motion fails, the government falls immediately. If the rejection motion is passed (as it actually was on October 19 by 35 votes to 30), then the government must present a second program.

At this stage we enter a realm of indefiniteness. There is no explicit mention in the constitution, but it is assumed in other countries with similar mechanisms that a government only assumes full and not merely caretaker functions once it has been invested in the House. Also, the Timorese Constitution does not clearly provide a deadline for the second program to be presented – but it is implicit that it should not be longer than the first one.

By December 7, a month and a half have elapsed without the government submitting the second program to the House – and Alkatiri has repeated that he does not feel obliged to do so before the end of the year, or even in the new year. Instead, he has acted as if invested with full powers, submitting to the House a proposal to “rectify” the current budget – something that clearly goes beyond the powers of a caretaker government. All those attitudes have infuriated the opposition.

The opposition has moved closer together, and have signed a formal alliance in order to replace the current government. As Xanana has been involved in overseas activities (officially related to the negotiations with Australia, but actually going far beyond those) and has not set foot in Dili for three months, the agreement was signed in Singapore. Following the acceptance of the budget correction bill for debate by the Speaker, the opposition tabled a motion that the Speaker refuses to put to a plenary vote. The opposition has since been boycotting the parliamentary committee on budget and finances, meaning that it cannot function for lack of a quorum. The opposition parties also tabled another motion to reject the government, which – if approved – would bring it down at once. The Speaker has so far refused to put this item on the agenda. Eve before the Speaker took these decisions, the three parties filed for his destitution – and again the Speaker has not yet set a date to discuss and vote on this proposal.

Meanwhile, the political rhetoric has grown increasingly inflammatory. FRETILIN accuses the opposition of staging a coup (even though they are only using the constitutional and parliamentary powers at their disposal), and Alkatiri fumed that “if they dance in the House, we shall dance on the streets”. The current minister for defence and security (who controls both the army and the police) said that: “If disturbances break out on the streets of Dili, the MPs from the opposition benches must take care of the issue”. On the opposition side, the rhetoric has matched the government’s, with accusations of “unconstitutionality” (namely in the delays regarding the submission of the second draft of the government’s program) and unlawful usurpation of power (both against the government and the speaker).

Sooner or later, either the government’s program or the opposition’s motion of rejection will be brought before MPs. As the situation stands today, it is likely that Alkatiri’s executive will not survive, even with the support and complacency of President Lu Olo. If so, then the president has a few alternatives.

First, he will have to decide whether or not to dissolve parliament – a move which he can only make after January 22 due to constitutional restrictions that protect a parliament from being dissolved in the first six months following an election. FRETILIN and its junior party clearly prefer this solution, hoping they will increase their share of the vote. Elections would be held in late March, and a new government installed not before late April. No state budget would be approved in the meantime – a serious issue in a fragile country. However, a new and little credited development has emerged: a number of small parties that all fell below the 4% threshold have made an alliance which, on the evidence of the last elections, would give them 6 or more seats – mainly at the expense of the larger parties, making it even more difficult for a FRETILIN-led government to emerge. The opposition, for its part, would prefer President Lu Olo to respect the current parliament and find a solution. For many, the obvious one would be for him to nominate some figures from the ranks of those parties in order to form a majority government backed by CNRT, PLP and KHUNTO.

But President Lu Olo could choose otherwise – and he might have a chance of success. He has the option of asking Alkatiri to re-initiate negotiations with the opposition (a highly unlikely solution given that tensions are running very high at the moment and the prime minister has shown his weakness as a negotiator by claiming the premiership for himself even before conversations had started). Alternatively, he could appoint a formateur tasked with finding a mutually agreeable solution for the outgoing government and the opposition. Someone such as Rui Maria de Araujo, the prime minister for the last two and a half years, Ramos-Horta, who still commands some respect, or even TMR – a move that could perhaps be coupled with the replacement of the Speaker of the House so that all key positions were not in the hands of a single party – could try to reshape a “Government of National Inclusion”. What seems quite clear is that Timor-Leste is not ready for a minority government, even if it is backed by a partisan president.

Previously in the history of independent Timor-Leste, tensions have run high. That was the case in 2006 during the crisis that led to the resignation of the prime minister, in 2007 after the legislative elections, and again in 2008 after the attempted murder of President Ramos-Horta. The existence of non-partisan presidents has been one important element in fostering détente and promoting dialogue, not least because – as the present crisis amply reveals – most political parties are fragile extensions of people with strong personal ambitions. Figures with individual prestige – a feature that in Timor-Leste is still associated with the role performed during the Resistance to Indonesian occupation, as shown by an opinion poll taken before the presidential election – rather than partisan leaders (as party competition still evokes the civil war of 1975), have ample room for intervention in the political arena.

Timor-Leste decided that the time was ripe for a new kind of presidency. However President Lu Olo seems to have been overtaken by the mounting tension, unable to distance himself and the presidency from siding with one faction. He is a player in the most severe political crisis in the country since 2006 – not the moderator or referee who might be able to foster dialogue. His reading of the situation indicates that he supports FRETILIN’s stance, and he rejects the claims of any “irregular functioning of the political institutions”. However, he risks ending up as a “lame duck”. The miracle that could save him in the short term would be the establishment of a new “Government of National Inclusion”. It is up to him to decide.

Alkatiri once told me in an interview that “political exclusion generates conflicts”[ii]. One wonders whether he recalls what he said in the light of FRETILIN’s decision to occupy the three most senior positions of the Timorese state under his leadership, a state that is built on principles of power sharing.

Notes

[i] On the formation of this government, see my “The Long and Winding Road: a brief history of the idea of ‘Government of National Inclusion’ and its current implications”, ANU SSGM Discussion Paper 2016/3

[ii] Mari Alkatiri, “A exclusão política gera conflitos” in R.G.Feijó (ed) O Semi-presidencialismo Timorense. Coimbra, CES/Almedina, 2014

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.

Presidential Profile – Timor-Leste: President-elect ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres (2017 – )

Francisco Lu-Olo Guterres is one of the most powerful people within the ruling party FRETILIN. He joined the party in 1974, became commander of the party’s military wing during Timor-Leste’s war for independence and played a key role in the country’s transition towards an independent and democratic state. And unlike many other key political figures, he never gave up his FRETILIN party membership.

Guterres, in Timor-Leste better known by his code name from the liberation struggle, ‘Lu-Olo’, was born on 7 September 1954. He describes himself as ‘the son of a poor family, of humble poor people’. Lu-Olo became member of the left-wing FRETILIN[1] in 1974, the main party of the resistance throughout Indonesian occupation. After the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste in December 1975, Guterres joined FALINTIL, the military arm of FRETILIN. As a FALINTIL commander he was responsible for organising the resistance in the Eastern part of Timor-Leste where until today the party is hugely popular. In the resistance movement he worked closely with Xanana Gusmão and Taur Matan Ruak and with those living in exile during the occupation, like Marí Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta. All were former FRETILIN members, but only Alkatiri and Guterres have remained loyal to the party.

In 2001 Guterres was elected president of FRETILIN at the party’s first congress and has stayed in that role since. From 2001 to 2002 he headed the constituent assembly, the body that was responsible for writing Timor-Leste’s new constitution. Under his leadership, Timor-Leste adopted premier-parliamentarism, a semi-presidential subtype. In the constitution the president is the symbol and guarantor of national independence and the supreme commander of the defence force. The president is endowed with certain unilateral powers, such as the power to veto legislation and appoint officials, and has special powers in the area of defence and foreign affairs. FRETILIN had won the 2001 parliamentary elections and on Independence Day on 20 May 2002 the CA turned into Timor-Leste’s National Parliament with Guterres as president. He remained in this function until 2007, when following the parliamentary elections FRETILIN was forced to the opposition bench.

Since 2007 Guterres ran three times for president but only his last bid was successful. Indeed, in 2007 and 2012 he lost the presidential run-off elections against Ramos-Horta and Ruak, respectively. With the crucial support of Gusmão and his own FRETILIN party, Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round of the presidential elections on 20 March 2017. In his victory speech, the president-elect promised to keep peace and unity as his primary goals of his presidency. “I’ll be president for all people in Timor-Leste, even those who didn’t vote for me,” he told a crowd of supporters. “I’ll keep fighting for peace and unity of our nation.” Yet, given that virtually all political parties are represented in a government of national unity, it is not entirely clear who, precisely, Guterres wants to unite.

Perhaps the unity government anticipates that in the near future its policy of ‘buying peace’ will no longer be an option. Ever since the massive inflow of petrol dollars in the mid-2000s, the government has spent millions of dollars in social benefits to appease the so-called veterans who (claim to) have played an active role in the independence struggle. These well-organised trained guerrilla fighters have shown to be capable to create chaos whenever they disagree with government policy. The problem now is that the government is rapidly running out of cash due to dropping oil and gas revenues[2], so it may no longer have the financial means to buy off the potential troublemakers.

The president-elect has announced to back the current government’s foreign policy direction when it comes to relations with Australia and Indonesia. This means that the current standoff between Timor-Leste and Australia over the exploitation of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field will continue to deprive the state of the much-needed oil revenues to fill up the rapidly growing budget hole. Furthermore, those who are dissatisfied with the current unity government may find it difficult to cast their vote in the upcoming parliamentary election as opposition is virtually non-existent.

Guterres will be sworn in as the fourth president of post-independent Timor-Leste on 20 May 2017.

Notes

[1] In 1974 FRETILIN was called ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association).

[2] Oil revenues make up 90 per cent of the budget and roughly 80 per cent of the country’s national income is derived from oil. It is estimated that the oil fields with production agreements will be depleted by 2025.

Former resistance leader becomes Timor-Leste’s first partisan president

The presidential election seems to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres. With some two-thirds of votes counted, the former independence fighter has received just under 60 per cent of the vote. For the first time since 2002 Timor-Leste will have a president formally affiliated to a political party.

It is the third time presidential elections have taken place in Timor-Leste, but the first time that a presidential candidate has managed to win a majority of the votes cast in the first round. Guterres owes much of his electoral success to the support of former President and PM Xanana Gusmão (CNRT) and FRETILIN. Together, the two parties control 55 out of 65 seats in parliament. In February 2015 cooperation between the CNRT and FRETILIN resulted in the formation of a government of national unity in which all political parties were represented, including opposition parties. The fact that Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round shows the broad popular support these parties have in Timor-Leste.

President Taur Matan Ruak did not seek re-election but supported Guterres’ closest rival António da Conceição of the Democratic Party (PD) who received 30 per cent of the vote. Last year, President Ruak created his own People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which will participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Recently, President Ruak has announced his desire to become the next PM.

To some extent, the presidential election was ‘business as usual’ in Timor-Leste: the candidate who has Gusmão’s support won the elections. What is new is that the president-elect is formally affiliated to a political party. So far, presidents have run on an independent ticket. Whereas under Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential system the head of state has limited executive power, in practice Timorese presidents have tended to take on the role of the opposition. During their presidency, Ramos-Horta and Ruak have frequently publicly expressed their concern with the rapid growth of the state budget, the increasing number of cases of corruption in which government officials were involved, and ‘unsustainable’ capital-intensive government investments. Both presidents lost Gusmão’s support and have only served one term.

It is unlikely Guterres will play a similarly active supervisory role during his five-year term in office. The president-elect is the official leader of the ruling party FRETILIN, which together with the CNRT will easily win the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Guterres will assume the presidency on 20 May. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early July.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste upcoming presidential elections: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Rui Graça Feijó is Lecturer at CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste will hold its fourth presidential elections on March 20. In spite of the lack of opinion polls, it is possible to suggest that they will reveal a new political landscape, the extent of whose novelty is still to be decided. To start with, these elections will confirm the Timorese “rule” that no incumbent succeeds in obtaining a second term in office

The field of candidates is composed of 8 individuals who submitted at least 5,000 endorsements with a regional distribution of at least 100 in each of the country’s 213 districts. This is the same number as in 2007, and 5 less than in 2012. Underneath the “normality” of this picture, a major change is occurring: there is a very strong candidate alongside seven others with little or no chance of actually fighting for anything more than a modest result, at best an honourable second. The presidential elections will thus fulfil two purposes: one is the official task of choosing a president; the other is to help contenders ascertain their hold on popular vote and their chances in the legislative elections scheduled for June, allowing for tactical decisions. On top of that, internal party struggles, a show of personal vanity, and access to the generous public support to candidates (at least US$ 10,000 per candidate regardless of their electoral score) will play a minor part in the circus.

FRETILIN proposed Lu Olo, its chairman (not its leader, the secretary-general Mari Alkatiri), as it had done in 2007 and 2012. Both times Lu Olo came first on the initial round only to see all other candidates rally against him in the decisive one. He has now received the formal backing of the largest parliamentary party, CNRT, and most of all, of the charismatic leader of the young nation, Xanana Gusmão. He is “Snow White” surrounded by seven dwarfs.

The main rival seems to be António Conceição. He is a member of Partido Democrático, a party that suffered a heavy blow with the death of its historical leader Fernando Lasama de Araújo (2015), followed by internal strife. The party as such ceased to be part of the governmental coalition, although his ministers were allowed to remain in functions as “independent”. António Conceição is one of those, and his bid at the presidency is partly a test for a presumed bid for the party leadership. He may have the backing of a new party, Partido da Libertação do Povo, inspired by the outgoing president Taur Matan Ruak, who declined to seek re-election and is widely believed to be preparing a bid for the premiership (if the presidential elections allow for such presumption).

Former minister José Luis Guterres, whose party Frenti-Mudança is the smaller one in the governmental coalition, has also declared his intention to run.

Two non-parliamentary parties have also fielded candidates. Partido Trabalhista supports its leader, Angela Freitas, and Partido Socialista Timorense backs António Maher Lopes. Although PST has no MP, its leader, Avelino Coelho, holds an important position in government.

A former deputy commissioner in the Anti-Corruption Commission, José Neves, is among those who seek the popular vote without party support – a circumstance that in the past has been critical in winning the second ballot, as candidates in these circumstances were able to build coalitions of all the defeated runners against the “danger” of a partisan candidate. Two others fall in this category: Amorim Vieira, of whom very little is known apart from the fact that he lived in Scotland where he joined SNP; and Luis Tilman, a virtually unknown individual who also presents himself as “independent”.

A few things emerge from this picture. Against what is expectable in two-round elections in fragmented party systems (Timor has 4 parliamentary parties, about 30 legal ones, and the 2012 elections had 21 parties or coalitions running), which induce the presentation of candidates on an identity affirmation basis in view of a negotiation for the second ballot (as was the case in Timor in 2007 and 2012), this time the two largest parties negotiated a common candidate before the first round, significantly increasing the likelihood that he will be elected on March 20.

It thus highly probable that Timor-Leste will have for the first time a president who is a member of a political party. The experience of three non-partisan presidents comes to an end not because the rules of the game have been changed, but rather because the political scenario has moved considerably. Back in 2015, a government of “national inclusion” replaced the one led by Xanana with the backing of all parties in the House, even if FRETILIN, who offered one of its members for the premiership, still claims to be “in the opposition”.  The move has been called by a senior minister “a transformation of belligerent democracy into consensus democracy”. Although the outgoing president is supposed to have facilitated this development, he soon turned sides and became a bitter and very outspoken critic of Rui Maria de Araújo’s executive and the political entente that sustains it.

Now the two major partners of the entente agreed to go together to the presidential elections, signalling that they wish to continue the current government formula after this year’s cycle of elections (even if the place of smaller parties in the coalition is not secure, and a question mark hangs above the score that the new opposition PLP may obtain). More than this, they assume that the role of the president has somehow changed from being the guarantor of impartiality discharging a “neutral” function as “president of all Timorese” to be a player in the partisan game, throwing his political and institutional support behind the government coalition.

A question emerges when one considers that CNRT is the largest party in the House, and that it has relinquished the right to appoint the prime minister (who is a member of FRETILIN acting in an “individual capacity”) and now forfeits the chance of securing the presidency, offering it to its rival/partner. Will it maintain this low-key attitude after the parliamentary elections if it remains the largest party?

The CNRT/FRETILIN entente suggests that Timorese politics lives in a double stage: the official one with state officers discharging their functions, and the one behind the curtains where de facto Xanana (who is simply a minister) and Mari Alkatiri (who holds a leading position in a regional development entity) tend retain the reins of actual power. In this light, public efforts to promote the “gerasaun foun” (younger generation) in lieu of the “gerasaun tuan” (the old guard that was already present back in 1975) by offering the premiership and other jobs to those who are relatively younger needs to be carefully hold in check.

In Dili, I was told that Timorese presidents tend to suffer the “syndrome of the wrong palace”. This expression is meant to convey the idea that they become frustrated with the (allegedly limited) powers bestowed upon them by the constitution, and consider that the legitimacy conferred on them by a two round election that guarantees an absolute majority is sort of “kidnapped”. They are prisoners in their palace. They believe they have the right to determine strategic orientations and cannot find the actual means to implement them. So they look at the premiership in the palace next door. Xanana stepped down from the presidency and launched a party and a successful bid to head government; Taur Matan Ruak is trying to follow suit – but his chances are not deemed so high. If Lu Olo manages to get elected, the sort of relations he is likely to establish with the prime-minister are totally different, as he is compromised with “one majority, one government, one president” – only the president is not likely to be the one who leads. Will this resolve the syndrome issue? Interesting times lay ahead.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste’s upcoming elections and the prospects for semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste is preparing for next year’s elections (presidentials in March/April, legislative in July). To a large extent, these will be centred around the president’s opposition to the ruling majority as from late 2015.

In 2012, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR) – the last leader of the guerrilla and Chief of Staff of the armed forces – ran as an “independent supported by Xanana’s party, ousting the incumbent Ramos-Horta in the first round and defeating Fretilin’s Lu Olo in the second. In preparation for those elections, some members of Fretilin were inclined to give TMR their support based on his track record of good relations with the party. The party’s leadership chose otherwise, but the seed for cooperation was there. It came as no surprise then that the major political event of TMR’s presidency was a broad parliamentary agreement that opened up the doors for Fretilin to join the government. In February 2015, Rui Maria de Araujo, a member of Fretilin acting in a non-party capacity, was sworn in a PM of the 6th Government – a government of “national inclusion”. For the first time since independence, all parliamentary parties had a seat in government[1]. TMR is widely credited with this development, and he came out in favour of it when he said:

“How does a democracy work without opposition? Democracy is not an end to Timor, it is a means. Between a classical form of democracy and another one consisting of reinforcing social and political cohesion, we have chosen the latter.”[2]

However, the president kept his “independent” persona: he toured more than 350 of the country’s 440-odd sukus (villages), thus decentralising contact with citizens (“It is incredible what I see there. The government has done its job. But people always want more.”), and made sure his channels of communication via the media were kept open (and thus opposed as much as he could alterations to the freedom of the press bill).

By the end of 2015 the political scenario had evolved. Parliament passed a bill making it more difficult to register new political parties. The president held back the law until a party widely tipped to be his own creation had the chance to register under the old rules. A few weeks later, he vetoed the 2016 state budget that had been passed by a unanimous vote in the House, and appealed to parliamentarians to introduce substantial changes, arguing for his vision of the country based on contacts with the population. They took a blind eye to the president’s recommendations and insisted on the very same budget. The rupture between the president and the government majority was consummated. In hindsight, it is possible that the president believed the change of government also meant a new political orientation that never materialized.

Last February, using his constitutional powers, the government proposed to extend the mandate of the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, who had been TMR’s second in command. The president disagreed – a decision within his powers. However, he went two steps further: he dismissed the military commander and appointed a new one without consultation with government – and this was not within his constitutional powers. A serious conflict ensued, the result of which is still pending. The president stepped back from the dismissal and the new appointment, but has thus far not resolved the issue in spite of lengthy negotiations.

More recently, the parliamentary majority enacted a law on the composition of the National Electoral Commission which met with TMR’s opposition, but which he was again forced to sign after a second parliamentary vote. TMR expressed the hope that the new body would not be implemented before the next round of elections – as the Commission is dependent on the government and parliament, excluding civil society from its composition, thus being prone to manipulation by those who already have seats – but it seems the old members have been notified of the termination of their term in office.

TMR has made it known that he would not seek re-election, creating a situation in which none of the first three presidents was elected for a second consecutive term. It is believed he will follow Xanana’s example of creating his own political party and fight the legislative elections after he steps down. An “executive syndrome” seems to have struck again in a country whose president is entrusted with significant but not executive powers.

In spite of serious confrontations between the president and the government (after the 2006 crisis), including in prominent place the definition of the president’s competences in matters of national defence and security that Lydia M. Beuman (2016) considered the “Achiles heel” of semipresidentialism in young democracies, but which have extended to other realms, there is no sign that the Timorese will place a revision of their constitutional system on the agenda for the upcoming elections. The debate will continue on the profile of presidential powers (Beuman 2016, Strating 2016) which, in my view, are quite considerable but lack executive competences. In a way, the “pouvoir d’empêcher” overweighs the competences for initiative, which nevertheless are present in the array of his powers (Feijo, 2016).

After having elected three “independent” presidents, entertaining the idea that there was a clear difference between the realm of presidential powers and that of government, the 2017 elections could finally see the election of a party candidate, as Fretilin seems to insist that it is now “Lu Olo’s turn”. However, it may also be that a strong “independent” candidate may emerge (rumours have it that former president Ramos-Horta is considering his bid). Without constitutional changes, the upcoming elections may bring substantial innovations nonetheless.

References

Beuman, Lydia M., 2016. Political Institutions in East Timor. Semi-presidentialism and Democratisation. London & New York, Routledge

Feijó, Rui Graça, 2016. Dynamics of Democracy in Timor-Leste. The birth of a democratic nation, 1999-2012. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press

Strating. Rebecca, 2016. Social Democracy in East Timor. London & New York, Routledge

[1] Later, PD would be removed from the governing coalition.

[2] http://www.rtp.pt/noticias/mundo/timorenses-tem-estado-a-aprender-fazendo-afirma-taur-matan-ruak_n874728 accessed July 8, 2016

Timor-Leste – Veto Behaviour of Nonpartisan Presidents

Timor-Leste became formally an independent state in May 2002. Since independence and excluding two interim presidents, the country has had three presidents – Xanana Gusmão (2002-2007), José Ramos-Horta (2007-2012), and Taur Matan Ruak (2012-).

Article 85c of the constitution of Timor-Leste empowers the president to veto any bill. The constitution makes a distinction between bills created by the government (projetos de lei) and parliamentary bills (propostas de lei). Vetoes against government bills are absolute and cannot be overridden by parliament. Parliamentary bills vetoed on constitutional grounds require a two-thirds majority of the deputies present to be overridden (art. 88.3). A political veto can be overridden by the parliament with an absolute majority (art. 88.2).

President Gusmão (2002-2007)

In the presidential elections Gusmão ran as an independent. However, his candidature was publicly supported by virtually all (opposition) parties except for FRETILIN, the party that held a majority of seats in the parliament. The relationship between President Gusmão and Prime Minister Alkatiri, the leader of FRETILIN, was one of ‘conflictual cohabitation.’[1] Between May 2002 and June 2006 when Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned President Gusmão vetoed 3.2% of legislation (4 laws), the Tax Law (2002), the Immigration and Asylum Law (2003), the Freedom of Assembly and Demonstration Law (2005) and the Penal Code (2006).

In July 2006, José Ramos-Horta, an ally of the president, was appointed interim prime minister until the 2007 legislative elections. The composition of the cabinet and parliament remained largely unchanged.[2] During Ramos-Horta’s prime ministership, the president vetoed 8.3% of legislation (2 laws), the Law on Pension for Former Deputies (2006) and the Law on Pension for Former Officials (2007). So, the president vetoed more laws but a lower percentage of laws under ‘cohabitation’ than when the president and prime minister (but not his ministers!) were political allies.

President Ramos-Horta (2007-2012)

Like his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ramos-Horta ran as an independent in the 2007 presidential elections. His campaign was backed by all political parties bar FRETILIN and KOTA, which backed the FRETILIN candidate Francisco Guterres (Lu-Olo).  The veto rate under President Ramos-Horta was 7.9% (4 vetoes), the Law on Precedence in State Protocol (2010), the Land Law (2012), the Expropriation Law (2012) and the Real Estate Fund Law (2012).

President Taur Matan Ruak (2012-)

On 16 April 2012, the former commander of Timor-Leste’s defence force was elected president. Also Ruak was elected as an independent, but was supported by the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), the ruling party of the incumbent prime minister and former president Gusmão. So far President Taur Matan Ruak has promulgated 49 laws and has not vetoed any bill.

What explains the different veto behaviour of the three presidents? Situations like cohabitation or divided executive that are often hypothesised to explain variation in veto behaviour have little explanatory power in Timor-Leste given that all presidents have been formally nonpartisan. To be sure, leading scholars hold that cohabitation cannot emerge in democratic regimes where presidents are nonpartisan.[3] However, Timor-Leste demonstrates that non-partisans are unpredictable. The veto activity of, in particular, Ramos-Horta, indicates that his apparent partisan leanings did not guarantee his unwavering loyalty to the prime minister’s party.


[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.

[2] Prime Minister Ramos-Horta took charge of the defence portfolio and entrusted his previous portfolio of foreign affairs to José Luís Guterres, a fervent Alkatiri opponent. All other cabinet ministers who had served under Alkatiri were reappointed to Ramos-Horta’s new cabinet.

[3] Samuels, D. J. and Shugart, M. S. (2010) Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers. How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.