Timor-Leste politics deadlocked over graft allegations

A dispute over cabinet nominees is getting ugly as the opposition appeals to the nation's corruption watchdog
Timor-Leste politics deadlocked over graft allegations

Supporters of a campaign for the Fretilin party in Dili, Timor-Leste, on May 9. Elections that month followed a campaign marred by violence and political mudslinging as the impoverished country struggles to buoy its oil-dependent economy. (Photo by Valentino Dariell de Sousa/AFP)

Timor-Leste has veered into yet another political crisis. The largest party in the ruling Alliance for Progress and Change (AMP) coalition government is threatening to impeach President Francisco Guterres if he does not approve nine ministerial nominees who remain under a corruption cloud.

Guterres has refused to accept the candidates after sending the names to the country's Anti-Corruption Commission (CAC) and prosecutor-general for investigation.

Led by revolutionary hero and former president, Xanana Gusmao, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) is the biggest partner in the three-party AMP coalition with 23 seats. It is now digging its heels in.

Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Party has just eight seats. It is led by Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, another former independence fighter who was sworn in as prime minister on June 23 and who goes by the nickname Taur Matan Ruak ("two sharp eyes").

The Khunto Party, the third member of the coalition that is said to have strong links to martial arts groups, has five seats.

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Opposition parties make up the rest of the 65-seat legislature, led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) with 23 seats.

Fretilin began as a resistance movement and formed part of the government in Timor-Leste when the country gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002. It stayed in power until 2007.

The CNRT has defended the nine ministerial nominees in a letter to Guterres guaranteeing they would have to stand trial if any charges of graft or other wrongdoing were leveled against them.

When this failed to sway the president, the party stepped up a gear and issued a statement on Aug. 7 threatening him with impeachment if he failed to approve the nominations "within 10 days."

"We want to say … that these people are the top leadership of the CNRT who have been voted in and been entrusted by the people of our nation," it said.

"And it is only these people that we, the organizational structure of the CNRT in the municipalities, have placed our trust in," continued the statement, which was released shortly after the party's congress.

"There is a constitutional claim for that presidential role as the guarantor of the smooth functioning of democratic institutions under Section 74," said Michael Leach, a professor of politics at Melbourne's Swinburne University.

"The question is, whether there should be a strict legal test on the ministerial nominees — and the government has already withdrawn the two nominees currently facing charges — or whether the president is entitled to make a judgment on their political fitness for office."

Since Timor-Leste's independence, over $14 billion has been spent from the Petroleum Fund that provides most of the country's revenue, yet there is little to show for it except for a few big infrastructure projects.

Barely any of the money has trickled down to ordinary people in this, one of the world's poorest countries with a per-capita GDP of just US$1,239. Some 30 percent of the nation is mired in poverty and parents have to contend with a very high child malnutrition rate of 40 percent.

Timor-Leste ranked 91st out of 180 countries rated by Transparency International in 2017. Meanwhile, the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business" report placed it a lowly 178th out of 190 countries.

The CAC has faced an ever-increasing workload and convictions of senior public office holders have kept growing. Now regular Timorese and businesspeople are growing disillusioned, while both major parties vowed to focus on anti-corruption measures in their campaigns.

"We have been attacked by this endemic corruption, which is also a moral and ethical issue. If we can't kill this, it will kill us as a country," 24-year-old political science major Dominginos Suares, who studies in the capital Dili, told ucanews.com.

"Those corrupt leaders don't love Timor-Leste. They will destroy our future. Corruption is growing fast. Look at how many people are in jail while others have fled the country," he said, referring to a growing list of former ministers and senior bureaucrats.

Rui Castro owns Ruvik, a mid-sized service business, and serves as deputy president of the Timor-Leste Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We've been living with these kind of issues for 10 years," Castro said. "We have to tackle them."

A key problem is that the CAC, launched in 2010, lacks teeth. All of the commissioners have complained that the body needs separate powers from those laid down in the Penal Code, which would require new legislation to be passed, said Leach, a proposal backed by the prosecutor-general.

"Timor-Leste, as a post-conflict society, is confronting the problem of corruption and putting in place a number of mechanisms to address problems of accountability and transparency," Aderito de Jesus Soares, Timor-Leste's anti-corruption commissioner, told ucanews.com

"There remain a number of significant factors that make Timor-Leste at least potentially prone to corruption. Among these are the fledgling nature of state institutions, and the legal framework that remains a work in progress, and which is weak."

"The public often expects the commission to work quick miracles in combating corruption. They expect [it] to act quickly in the shortest time frame possible," he added.

"However, such expectations are bound to be unmet if state support for a better commission is insufficient."

Fretilin has been attempting to add fresh powers to the CAC via a bill it first introduced in 2014, but the CNRT has repeatedly rejected this.

On July 10, Fretilin re-introduced the bill to the new parliament. Ucanews.com understands it has won support from some legislators but in Timor-Leste the cabinet is separate from parliament, illustrating some fissures in the ruling alliance.

The new bill will widen criminal provisions in such areas as trafficking influence, collusive corrupt practices, construction and supplier fraud, and unjustifiable wealth.

It also gives more powers to authorities to investigate, seize and keep hold of assets and evidence and act on anonymous reports of corruption. It also creates corporate responsibility for criminal acts, as well as criminalizing corrupt acts by officials committed outside the country.

One area of controversy concerned a proposed set of provisions that would allow the authorities to initiate an investigation and question suspects when there are indications of unlawful acquisition of wealth.

This refers to cases where people control assets when they are seen to be lacking the financial means to have acquired them. But court jurists have argued this would be a breach of the constitutionally enshrined presumption of innocence.

Further complicating matters, insiders say, is that both the president and prime minister have effectively teamed up to keep the nine ministerial nominees out of the cabinet.

Moreover, any attempt to successfully impeach the president would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which is something the CNRT has been unable to muster.

Observers say Guamao's decision in July to not join the government was aimed at giving the premier enough space to resolve the crisis.

If the nation's elder statesman were to cede ground on the anti-corruption bill, however, it could spell good news all round.

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