Political crisis threatens Timor-Leste's future

Six months of stasis in parliament is beginning to inflict further economic damage on the impoverished nation
Political crisis threatens Timor-Leste's future

Constitutional lawyer Manuel Tilman lawyer explains the political crisis in Dili, Timor Leste. (Photo by Michael Coyne)

Timor-Leste's constitutional crisis, due to come to a head on Jan. 22, could take weeks to solve with a range of options in terms of consultation and final decisions available to President Francisco Guterres Lu Olo.

The crisis, which has seen the Fretilin-led minority government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri unable to pass policy programs or any budget bills, is now threatening the tiny country's fragile economy.

Timor Leste has now been without an effective government since the holding of five-yearly elections on July 22 last year, but under the constitution the president, who is the sole arbiter of what happens next, cannot dissolve parliament until six months after the election  — Jan. 22, 2018.

Constitutional lawyer Manuel Tilman, who helped draft the Timor–Leste Constitution told ucanews.com that Lu Olo has a range of options and opportunities to prevent upheavals and the lengthy process that fresh elections would involve.

"After Jan. 22 he can meet the five parties represented in parliament one by one and ask them if they have any solutions to offer… This is the path that I believe he should take," Tilman said.

But while, officially, the next steps rest with the president the reality is that Timor-Leste's elder statesman Xanana Gusmao — a former president and prime minister and effective leader of the opposition — as head of the CNRT, the largest party in the three party united opposition, still holds much sway over final decision making.

Gusmao had expected his party to emerge the strongest under Timor-Leste's proportional representation system and enable it to form a coalition, however it lost out by a small margin to Fretilin.

The power balance is further complicated by the fact that Lu Olo is also a member of Fretilin.

Initially, Alkatiri appeared to have secured a parliamentary majority with the inclusion of new party KHUNTO which unexpectedly won five seats — a sign of dissatisfaction amongst voters with traditional parties and widespread corruption in the political class that saw eight members of the former parliament sentenced to jail, Tilman noted.

KHUNTO, however, walked away from the government only days before its was due to be sworn in after its push for senior positions was rejected by Alkatiri and a Fretilin representative was appointed as president of the parliament — the country's number three political post, a KHUNTO party source told ucanews.com.

"Xanana was [unexpectedly] beaten in the election so it seems he has stayed away with the view of 'you didn't vote for me now figure this out yourselves'," Tilman said.

Gusmao has also been tied up with negotiations with Australia over a fresh deal on oil and gas revenues — and where the gas will be processed, in Australia or Timor-Leste — from the Timor Gap, the stretch of disputed ocean between Australia and Timor-Leste. 

On Jan. 18 police raided the premises of Gusmao's daughter Zenilda Gusmao and froze all her assets after what some described as an "accumulation of assets." It is remains unclear what this may mean.

After consulting with political parties, the president can then consult with the State Council, an advisory group consisting of the current and former prime ministers, parliament president, former president and the head of the army — a group numbering 17 people.

"But none of these consultations are binding and there is no time limit on the president's decision," Tilman said.

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But he said there was an urgent need to resolve the situation as there were no government budget funds approved.

"This could mean that public servants, including the police, army, teachers and doctors will stop getting paid," he said.

Any new election cannot be held for 60 days and, realistically, until May due to Lent and Easter preventing electioneering in a country that is 96 percent Catholic.

Critics have said that Timor-Leste has been wrapped up in personality politics for too long and that there can be no fundamental change until the old guard goes and lets a new generation of politicians take charge.

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