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Timor Leste

Political turmoil brings new governing alliance in Timor-Leste

Miscalculations by Xanana Gusmão have allowed Taur Matan Ruak to unexpectedly consolidate his premiership

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Political turmoil brings new governing alliance in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste's former guerilla fighter Taur Matan Ruak has bolstered his government with five ministers from Fretilin and another from the Democratic Party. (Photo: Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP)

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A new multi-party alliance that was poised to take power in Catholic-majority Timor-Leste has collapsed only two months after it was formed and before it could be sworn in by President Francisco “Lu’Olo” Guterres.

The turn of events represents a major reversal of fortune for the minority government led by the People’s Liberation Party’s Prime Minister José Maria Vasconcelos, universally known by his nom de guerre Taur Matan Ruak, who was embarrassed by the decision of former coalition partner National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) to abstain from a vote on the annual budget in March.

This saw the collapse of the ruling three-party Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP) and has created financial gridlock in the impoverished nation.

The situation was quickly exacerbated by fears of Covid-19 in a country with next to no healthcare infrastructure. Fortunately, Timor-Leste has been largely spared, with few cases and no deaths, at least officially.

The putative new coalition was an unwieldy group of six parties led by the CNRT of elder statesman Xanana Gusmão, who served as the young nation’s inaugural president and later as prime minister. The fragile group fell apart over a vote to extend the country’s state of emergency created by the coronavirus.

A key member of the new but now collapsed coalition, the youth-focused KHUNTO party, opted to vote with Ruak on the emergency extension, throwing the political calculus up in the air once more.

Reports of deals and compromises swirled around capital Dili ahead of the vote. The new alliance had argued instead for the closure of ports, social distancing and freeing up economic activity, concerned that the tiny nation’s already stuttering economy could not survive a further lockdown.

KHUNTO’s powerful leader Jose Naimori then overruled that position on behalf of his five MPs.

Following the vote, Ruak seized the initiative, successfully moving to consolidate his position that less than a week ago appeared to be terminal. He asked the parliament’s largest party Fretilin to join the government; this offer was rapidly accepted.

“Ruak’s government has now been bolstered by five ministers from Fretilin and another from the Democratic Party, with Fretilin taking the key portfolios of health, state administration, finance, tourism, commerce and industry, and the Democratic Party taking the former-combatants portfolio,” Swinburne University international politics professor Michael Leach told UCA News.

These portfolios had been left unfilled since the May 2018 election due to a dispute over nominees by Guterres, who is separately elected and a member of Fretilin.

“Above all, the major question is whether the giant of East Timorese politics, Xanana Gusmão, can come back from this position,” Leach said.

“Gusmão’s move against his own AMP alliance in January — probably part of a strategy to have the CNRT ministers installed and trigger an early election — appears right now to have gone badly wrong. That said, few would consider it wise to draft a political eulogy for the master politician just yet.”

But the CNRT has not taken its surprise and apparently complete defeat lying down. It has immediately launched a legal challenge over the constitutionality of several of the president’s decisions but, no matter what, it is highly unlikely any court ruling could affect the new government, insiders said.

Leach suggested that the new government could stay in power until the next election due in 2023.

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