Timor-Leste Church loses key supporter as Ruak resigns

Latest political turmoil comes only seven months ahead of an expected visit by Pope Francis
Timor-Leste Church loses key supporter as Ruak resigns

East Timor’s Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak shows a ballot paper and his identification card at a polling station as he prepares to vote in the presidential election in Dili on March 20, 2017. (Photo: Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP)

The Catholic Church in Timor-Leste has lost its most influential political supporter in Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, who resigned on Feb. 25 but will remain as interim leader until he is replaced, most likely by the country's revolutionary hero and former leader Xanana Gusmao, in the coming weeks.

There have been some suggestions that Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president Jose Ramos Horta may become PM but he has insisted it will be Gusmao. In the chaotic would of Timor-Leste politics, nothing is ever certain until it is.

Gusmao heads the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) that has the second-highest number of seats in parliament, after arch rival Fretilin. He cobbled together a six-party coalition at the weekend to gain sufficient numbers for a parliamentary majority. In the process, he jettisoned the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), headed by Ruak, one of the three-party Alliance for Progress and Change (AMP) that won the May 2018 election.

While there is no firm guarantee that President Francisco “Lu'Olo” Guterres will agree, his own Fretilin party failed to come up with its own workable coalition as it once more teamed up with the PLP. Fretilin has made it clear it does not want a fresh election — the president’s only other choice — at this time, hoping that wrangling all the interests in such a broad coalition — the CNRT, Democratic Party, KHUNTO and three smaller parties with a seat each, the United Party for Development and Democracy, Frente Mudança and the Timorese Democratic Union — will result in acrimony and possibly chaos. All will be clamoring for ministries and the benefits that come along with them, both legal and more dubious.

The idea is that this would leave Fretilin looking like a stable alternative in partnership with Ruak, a popular leader who had previously been elected as president but left embarrassed by Gusmao and the CNRT when its members abstained from voting on this year’s budget, creating the present crisis.

“It’s very much back to the future,” Michael Leach, a professor of international politics and a Timor-Leste expert, told UCA News.

Gusmao was the country’s inaugural president from 2002-07 and then stepped into the prime minister’s role in 2007 before stepping down in 2015. At the last election, when his newly formed CNRT decided to announce its alliance with the PLP and KHUNTO ahead of the poll, he had made it clear that he did not want to be part of the executive government.

Yet he seemed unable to stop meddling and the issue that saw him bring down Ruak was the PM’s failure to convince Guterres to ratify the appointment on nine ministerial nominations made by Gusmao. Guterres argued they were too corrupt despite no formal charges being laid against them, which was doubly irksome for Gusmao, who had supported Guterres in the separate presidential election in 2017.

Still, the number of controversial nominees has slowly been whittled down to five as KHUNTO has withdrawn two and others have voluntarily stepped back. Insiders say the main controversy surrounds Francesco “Chico” Kalbuadi, who is close to Gusmao and seen as his “money man.”

He served as tourism minister from 2012-15 under Gusmao and was allegedly caught up in the Federation of International of Football scandal over Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup. Timor-Leste later naturalized 24 Brazilians and was banned from international football at the time. Observers believed if his name was withdrawn, a compromise between Guterres and Gusmao on other nominees may be possible. But others believe Gusmao may continue to push for him to force a fresh election.

The latest bout of political turmoil comes only seven months ahead of an expected visit to Timor-Leste by Pope Francis in September; he is also expected to visit Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Francis will once more follow in the footsteps of St John Paul II, who in 1989 visited the country that is nominally 90 percent Catholic, making it the most Catholic nation in the Asia-Pacific by percentage of population. The Polish pontiff’s visit became a signal moment in the country’s struggle for independence.

The Church has long held powerful influence in the country’s politics after it lent support to the 1975-96 fight for freedom from its Indonesian colonial masters. While Gusmao, in particular, is wary of the Church, the surprise ascendancy of Ruak would have cheered the country’s clergy. He along with his wife Isabel da Costa Ferreira, in her own right a powerful political player, is by some stretch the most devout leader the country has had. The Church has already received a boost with the signing of a concordat with the Holy See by the Timorese government in 2018.

Pope Francis, always interested in the less recognized outposts of the Church, has been paying attention and Protestant evangelism is on the rise, as it is in the Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Last September, Rome upgraded the Diocese of Dili to an archdiocese and its quietly impressive young prelate Virgilio do Camo da Silva, SDB, become the country’s first metropolitan. The archdiocese has two suffragan sees, the dioceses of Baucau and Maliana, and another has been under active consideration; perhaps Francis will use his visit to announce that.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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