Timor-Leste president risks impeachment if election called

Legal expert suggests that president and prime minister have colluded to pervert the nation's constitution
Timor-Leste president risks impeachment if election called

Former president of Timor Leste, also president of the People's Liberation Party, Taur Matan Ruak (left) and President Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo. (Photo by ucanews.com)

Timor-Leste's embattled Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has backed fresh elections, increasing the chances of a new poll being called in the wake of last July's election that has triggered political gridlock

President Francisco Guterres Lu Olo has until July 31, when parliament is due to sit, to break the six-month political deadlock or the opposition will use its numbers to vote out the government on the floor of the legislature.

On Jan. 23, he consulted with each of the five parties represented in parliament at the Presidential Palace in Dili. The following day he convened the advisory State Council, a 17-person group of political elders and military representatives.

Lu Olo is now expected to announce his decision at 10am on July 26 but in bowing to the PM's demands he runs the risk of triggering legal challenges by opposition parties or other civil groups "or even impeachment," Martin Hardie, a partner at Dili-based legal and consulting firm Watugari Coelho, told ucanews.com.

Lu Olo was elected in a separate poll in March 2018 with the backing of senior opposition figures.

Lu Olo's other choice is to dismiss Alkatiri, who leads the Fretilin-led minority government coalition and whose party won the most seats, 23, in last year's July poll by a margin of just one seat, but this path risks turmoil within the nation's storied freedom-fighting movement turned political powerhouse.

Alkatiri, who was the country's first prime minister from 2002 to 2006, failed to cobble together a working majority after the 2018 election where Fretilin squeaked ahead of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party, its coalition partner in the previous government.

This has meant the coalition government, which also includes the Democratic Party, has filed to have the crucial government program bill, a precursor to any budget, passed by the legislature.

If Alkatiri and his government are sacked, Lu Olo, also a member of Fretilin, would be forced to invited the party's main rival, the CNRT party led by the nation's former president, prime minister and senior statesman Xanana Gusmao to form a government.

CNRT, which has 22 seats in the parliament (only one less than Fretilin), has the backing of two smaller opposition parties that contested elections for the first time in 2017 — the People's Liberation Party (PLP), headed by 2012-17 President Taur Matan Ruak and which has eight seats, and KHUNTO, a team of political novices that picked up five seats.

Opposition figures believe that Lu Olo's other course will be to appoint Gusmao as PM despite the fact he has publicly said he did not want the post once more.

Dionicio Babo Soares, president of the national council of CNRT, told ucanews.com that he hoped that the president will provide an opportunity to his party. In parliament election last year, Fretilin gained 23 seats, CNRT 22 seats, PLP eight seats, Democrats seven seats and KHUNTO five seats.

"CNRT suggests that the president — if possible — give the chance to the second winner during the last election," Soares said Jan. 23.

Similarly, Jose Agustinho, secretary general of KHUNTO, said the president should give a chance to the second winner, CNRT

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, also secretary-general of Fretilin, said his party prefers a fresh election to let people determine the outcome.

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"But we will respect whatever the president decides," Alkatiri told local media.

Taur Matan Ruak told media after meeting the president on Jan. 23  that his party will support any decision made by the president

"We have told the president that he should make any decision — whatever it is — to solve the current political crisis. PLP will support whatever the president will decide."

"If the president decides on a fresh election, PLP is prepared to follow it," he said on Jan. 24


Illegal moves?

Independent commentators are wary of fresh elections and some believe the government and president have behaved illegally.

Until the minority government has its program and budget passed by parliament, it is only a caretaker government, said Hardie, who is also Francisco Xavier do Amaral professorial fellow at the University of Dili and a senior lecturer in law at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

"The president of the Republic in East Timor has a strong entrenched constitutional independence from the other branches of government. He is not like, for example, a head of state in a Westminster democracy that acts on the advice of the PM," Hardie said.

"There seems no doubt that the PM and the president of the parliament (the equivalent of the Westminster speaker) have colluded in order to prevent parliament from sitting, as required by law, for the best part of two months. 

"This was a device designed by the PM to stop parliament from considering a censure motion, which would have resulted in the majority opposition forming a government, and to string out the process in order to trigger an early election."

Hardie said this was done in breach of the parliament's own regulations.

"The president of the parliament was being reckless with the truth when he said yesterday that he had not obstructed parliament from sitting. This is exactly what he and the PM did," he said.

"If, as alleged by some, the PM has written for the president the orders dissolving parliament, and calling an early election, the result would be a total destruction of the separation of powers entrenched in the constitution.

"The president would not appear to be acting at his own behest but under the dictation of the PM. In such a situation the president would open himself up to future charges of impeachment if the majority opposition was successful at any early election," he added.

"The problem the president faces is that his future in politics may well be decided by the decision he takes this week."


Grassroots' reaction

Father Martinho Gusmao, philosophy professor at St. Peters and Paul Seminary in Dili,  said that while he believes that the president has all criteria fulfilled to have an early election under the constitution "from a moral and democratic" viewpoint for the "struggling democracy in Timor-Leste," the idea of early election is the worst ever.

"An early election is the last resource to solve the problem. It is like cardiac arrest. To save the heart, if you can do massage, do the massage, not the surgery," said Father Gusmao.

"I think they should renegotiate, all parties involved. The constitution allows this. If Fretilin and CNRT renegotiate, particularly Xanana (Gusmao) and Alkatiri, the problem of the country will be solved," he said.

He warned that in a new election most likely there will be strong political absenteeism.

"The people will think like this: we have chosen you for a certain post, and you don't match our dream, do not solve the problem, you have failed us. Now you come back and ask us to choose you again … it means we choose a problem."

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