UCA News

Timor Leste

Timor-Leste’s young government teeters on collapse  

Asia’s most Catholic country faces the prospect of a second election inside nine months after government fractures  

Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Timor-Leste’s young government teeters on collapse   

East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri after the prliament swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Dili on Sept. 15, 2017. (Photo Valentino Dariell de Sousa/AFP)

Share this article :
Timor-Leste has lurched into a constitutional crisis after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s minority government failed to pass key legislation, including a fresh budget bill, in the week before Christmas.

Asia’s most Catholic nation is facing the prospect of a new government, or a second election inside nine months, as the country’s parliament remains in gridlock after the July 22 poll failed to deliver a workable majority in parliament.

Alkatiri’s Fretlin Party, which won the most seats in the election, and its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, hold 30 seats in the 65-seat legislature and must rely on the support of opposition MPs to have legislation passed.

Alkatiri who replaced party colleague Rui Maria de Araujo as PM following the July 22 election, had originally stitched together a workable majority coalition.

But only days ahead of being sworn in, the coalition’s third partner, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), walked away taking with it its five seats and Alkatiri’s majority.

Alkatiri, a Muslim in a country that is more than 90 percent Catholic, was forced to step down in 2006 before his term as the nation’s first ever prime minister was complete.

During a televised press conference from Singapore on Nov. 19, Timor-Leste’s opposition leaders assured the public that they were prepared to take over the leadership.

The broadcast featured the country’s elder statesman and former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao who was accompanied by Taur Matan Ruak, president of Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and Jose do Santos Naimori of Khunto Party.

"If the president gives us the responsibility to lead the country out of the current crisis, we will take it," Gusmao said.

Alkatiri refused to convene parliament and claimed the opposition was trying to stage a coup, despite the fact that it is the president who swears in parliament.

Australian academic Damien Kingsbury has described it as a "government of national disunity" and Alkatiri as having a "controlling political style."

Gusmao has been negotiating a new treaty with Australia over the spoils of the estimated A$50 billion ($US39 billion) maritime oil and gas reserves in the so-called Greater Sunrise deposit in the waters between the two nations.

He has not been in the country and it’s widely considered that his presence is needed for the political impasse to either be resolved or the government dissolved.

What happens next is now very much with President Francisco Guterres, a Fretilin colleague of Alkatiri .

Manuel Tilman, a Timor-Leste lawyer, agreed saying a political crisis would be precipitated if the government’s program is rejected by parliament again.

"This is in line with Article 112 of the constitution. If the government's program is denied for a second consecutive time the government will fall," Tilman told ucanews.com

Under Article 112, according to Tilman, President Guterres will have to consider how to form a new government if the current one is disbanded.

Options include offering it to Gusmao’s  National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) who gained the second largest amount of votes in the July 22 polls, or forming a "national unity" government.

If the dialogue between the political elites fails, the president can dissolve the national parliament as early as Jan. 22, Tilman said.

"The election could be in April 2018, but since that date coincides with Lent and Easter in the deeply Catholic nation, it is most likely to be in May 2018," he added.

In the event of early elections in May, Timor-Leste could experience a financial crisis because the state budget has not been approved.

"I will make decisions according to the constitution so as not to burden the people and there will be no blood or injury, let alone deaths," President Guterres said Dec. 4.

Further complicating matters was the Dec. 26 announcement, Australia and East Timor will sign a new treaty this year setting maritime boundaries in an effort to settle lingering disputes over lucrative oil and gas fields in the East Timor Sea.

The new treaty would be signed in March according to a directive from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But this needs the ratification of parliament which, by then, may be dissolved. Timor-Leste’s parliament is due to reconvene on Jan. 8.

Timor-Leste officially declared independence in 2002 after 24 years under Indonesian rule. But fifteen years after independence it continues to struggle to cope with poverty, lack of education and health services. 

Support UCA News...

As 2020 unfolds, we are asking readers like you to help us keep Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) free so it can be accessed from anywhere in the world at no cost.

That has been our policy for years and was made possible by donations from European Catholic funding agencies. However, like the Church in Europe, these agencies are in decline and the immediate and urgent claims on their funds for humanitarian emergencies in Africa and parts of Asia mean there is much less to distribute than there was even a decade ago.

Forty years ago, when UCA News was founded, Asia was a very different place - many poor and underdeveloped countries with large populations to feed, political instability and economies too often poised on the edge of collapse. Today, Asia is the economic engine room of the world and funding agencies quite rightly look to UCA News to do more to fund itself.

UCA News has a unique product developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes. Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to - South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.

And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters that cover 22 countries and experienced native English-speaking editors to render stories that are informative, informed and perceptive.

We report from the ground where other news services simply can't or won't go. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don't have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.

With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.

Click here to find out the ways you can support UCA News. You can make a difference for as little as US$5...
UCAN Donate
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
Support UCA News

William J. Grimm, MM


Union of Catholic Asian News

"As Pope Francis has said, we live not so much in an era of change as in a change of era. That is especially true in Asia and for the churches of Asia. UCA News is the dedicated, Asia-wide news and information service for the Church in Asia and we need your help to maintain the service."