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Timor-Leste: two autocrats slug it out


For a year that started so well in Timor-Leste, it has ended badly. The country in a constitutional crisis, its minority government refusing to reconvene parliament, and there is the prospect of new elections in 2018 looming.

2017 saw Presidential and Parliamentary elections, both of which were peaceful and which indicated that the country’s government of national unity would continue, with a younger generation of political leaders taking over from the ‘Generation of ‘75’. By October, however, Timor-Leste’s controversial first Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, was again in that office heading a Fretilin-led minority government.

The majority opposition had formed a political alliance and asked President Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres to make them the government instead. President Guterres refused, with the majority alliance responding by voting down the government’s program and associated budget.

Should the government program be voted down a second time it would have automatically triggered new elections. To forestall that happening, Prime Minister Alkatiri refused to reconvene parliament, claiming the opposition alliance was attempting to stage a ‘coup’.

In part, the fractious falling out between the government and the opposition reflected what was understood to be a change in terms of an earlier agreement between CNRT leader Xanana Gusmao and Alaktiri on the formation of a new national unity government. This was compounded by Alkatiri managing to alienate both the Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and smaller youth-oriented KHUNTO party, after each had agreed to join Fretilin in government.

Even the Democratic Party (PD), which ended up in coalition with Fretilin in the minority government, had initially rejected such a coalition arrangement. In each case, party leaders complained of a ‘lack of inclusion’, reflecting Alkatiri’s (overly) controlling political style.

In part, too, however, the impasse between the government and opposition reflected the personalities of Alkatiri and Gusmao, both dominant and dominating political figures. Both are autocratic in their political style and with a long history of animosity only papered over by the establishment of the government of national unity in 2015.

What Timor-Leste has witrnessed, then has been a clash of egos more than a clash of policy or ideology. Alkatiri had long wanted to return to the office taken from him in 2006 when he was forced to resign, while Gusmao had only been content not to be Prime Minister so long as he retained effective final decision making power, as he had under the national unity government.    

The change in circumstance which led to Gusmao losing control was the slump in his CNRT’s support, from over 36 per cent in 2012 to just under 30 per cent. Critically, CNRT received 0.2 per cent less of the vote than Fretilin, giving it one less seat in parliament.

Under Timor-Leste’s constitution, the President can choose as Prime Minister either the person who heads a majority in the parliament or the head of the party that has received the most votes, without necessarily gaining a majority. President Guterres, as a loyal Fretilin member, chose the latter option, appointing his political colleague, Mari Alkatiri, as Prime Minister.

This ran contrary to the previous government’s move to a younger – and less controversial – Prime Minister, Fretilin’s Rui Araujo. On the strength of a 0.2 per cent majority, Alkatiri claimed the Prime Ministership, breaking the understanding he had with Gusmao that this position would be handed to a younger politician.

Given Gusmao’s support for Fretilin’s Araujo and, for the Presidnecy, Guterres, Gusmao might have even expected a quid pro quo arrangement with one his own CNRT members being nominated as Prime Minister. This did not happen.

CNRT, PLP and KHUNTO, formed as the ‘Parliamentary Majority Alliance’ (AMP), hold 35 of the parliament’s 65 seats, as opposed to the Fretilin-PD government holding 30 seats. Not only has AMP voted down the government program, it was also expected to pass a motion of no confidence in the ‘President’ (Speaker) of the Parliament and quite possibly also the Prime Minister.

Timor-Leste’s parliamentary legislation requiring it to meet weekly and its failure to do so has led to AMP claims that the government is now ‘unconstitutional’. Beyond that, the country’s budget is decided on a calendar rather than financial year basis. As a result, the government looked to enter 2018 having run out of money.     

Both sides of parliament, and their supporters, are now deeply – and seemingly irrevocably – entrenched in their opposing  positions. At some point, the parliament will have to reconvene or else find a new way to access funds to cover its budgetary shortfall. Should it meet, one of the various options for triggering new elections can be expected to be met.

Elections cannot be called within six months of previous elections, placing that date on 22 January. Short of an improbable reconciliation, elections could then be expected to be held in April 2018.

Given the deteriorating political environment in Timor-Leste, if new elections are held, they – and the lead up to them – are unlikely to reflect the peace and harmony that characterized those of 2017.

In 2006-07, deep divisions in Timor-Leste’s political society and associated violence resulted in external military and police intervention. That seems less likely, given that both the police and the army appear to be better disciplined than a decade ago.

But Timor-Leste’s immediate future is looking troubled. What this means for the country’s longer term prospects can only be guessed at, but none of it is likely to reflect the optimism and unity that seemed to characterize politics just a year previously.