The Debate | Opinion

Don’t Be Too Pessimistic About Timor-Leste’s New Political Instability

The new round of uncertainty brought about by the premier’s resignation deserves attention but also needs to be kept in perspective.

David Hutt
Don’t Be Too Pessimistic About Timor-Leste’s New Political Instability

East Timorese independence hero Xanana Gusmao, center, waves a national flag upon arrival in Dili, East Timor, Sunday, March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Valentino Darriel)

Credit: AP Photo/Valentino Darriel

Yet another government has fallen in Timor-Leste, as Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak last week offered up his resignation, following the breakup of a ruling coalition. And the latest collapse happened for the exact same reason as the downfall of a previous government in 2017: failing to pass a budget in parliament. As one analyst put it, it’s “back to the future in Dili.”

Back in 2017, Fretilin, one of the country’s two main parties, tried to form a minority government following an indecisive general election that year but was forced out of office when parliament rejected its proposed budget. A fresh election was called and, in July 2018, the opposition Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP) coalition was voted into office.

But in January, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the largest party within the AMP coalition, decided to abstain in the vote on the government’s new budget, which ensured it failed to pass parliament. Xanana Gusmao, Timor-Leste’s main political operator for decades and head of the CNRT, then pulled his party out of the ruling bloc and announced the formation of a new alliance, which looks set to try to form a new government next month.

The reasons for this collapse are numerous. Since mid-2018, President Lu Olo – who belongs to the opposition Fretilin party – has blocked the appointment of nine CNRT nominees for ministerial roles, meaning the largest party in the ruling coalition had almost no ministers. The CNRT also felt Prime Minister Ruak,who belongs to another alliance party, wasn’t battling enough for his coalition colleagues. Then there were major disagreements within the coalition over the budget, which presumably the CNRT felt were serious enough to bring down the government.

The AMP alliance was always fraught, given that Gusmao had to work with Ruak, a former president who has clashed with him for years. Ruak created the People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and ran for office in the 2017 general election on the express concern that both Fretilin and the CNRT were committed to expensive and wasteful megaprojects.

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The most likely event, now, is that Gusmao and his new six-party coalition — which excludes Ruak’s PLP — form a government next month that tries to push through its own budget. The other option is another general election, which would be the third since 2017.

Fretilin isn’t part of this new coalition, but could informally agree to work with it, just as Fretilin and the CNRT shared power in a “national unity government” between 2015 and 2017. But any new agreement between the two main parties is unlikely. During the 2015-2017 power sharing period, the CNRT held more parliamentary seats and, therefore, was the main driver of this informal alliance. Moreover, Ruak was president during this “national unity government” period and was considered an independent.

But Fretilin is now the largest party in parliament, with 23 seats, and, if power is now shared, not only would Fretilin hold more sway over the CNRT in parliament, it has a partisan as president. In effect, Fretilin will dominate politics – and Gusmao won’t want that.

Fretilin also doesn’t seem to want to join any CNRT-led alliance, nor desire new elections. Its leader, Mari Alkatiri, last week rejected the need for another ballot, most likely because he senses that his party will easily win the expected 2023 election if a new coalition continues to rule so dysfunctionally. Neither will the smaller parties of the new CNRT-led coalition want a fresh ballot, since they now have the opportunity of gaining ministerial positions for the first time and might lose seats in a new election; the Democratic Party lost two seats in 2018.

Most likely, Gusmao and the CNRT will try to form a government through the new six-party coalition. This includes the CNRT (with 21 seats in parliament), the Democratic Party (five), KHUNTO (five), and three other parties with one seat each. That brings a combined control of 34 seats in parliament – a two-seat majority. There are rumors that the former President Jose Ramos-Horta, another chief political operator who is thought to have played a part in constructing the new CNRT-led coalition, could serve as prime minister, though Gusmao might decide to return to the political spotlight. Analysts expect this to be decided next week, when the president formally responds to Ruak’s resignation (he currently remains as PM until the response).

Such a scenario would leave the PLP (with eight seats) and Fretilin (23 seats) in opposition. On one hand, this means there will be a vocal opposition to the new coalition government in parliament, necessary in any democracy. But, on the other, it means that the slim majority could be eclipsed if one or two parties decide on exiting the new alliance in the event Gusmao cannot assuage his new coalition partners well enough.

Naturally, most media reports have presented Timor-Leste’s recalcitrant politics as a major concern for the country. But we ought not to be too critical or pessimistic. Timor-Leste only gained its independence in 2002 after decades of brutal Indonesian occupation. In its early years, for sure, it suffered from political violence, which, at one point, pointed to a grim future. But in the last decade that has changed and now Timor-Leste is rated as one of the best democracies in the region.

We saw peaceful and relatively open elections in 2017 and 2018. The disorder created when the Fretilin government fell in 2017 was handled democratically with a fresh general election. The current disorder also looks set to be settled constitutionally, with the new CNRT-led coalition given a shot at forming a government. If not, citizens will be asked their opinion again – something the Vietnamese and Cambodians, for instance, can only look at jealously.

Timor-Leste is finding its political feet. It is now experimenting with coalitions and small majority governments, something that even experienced democracies in the West struggle with. New parties are entering government and gaining experience of leadership. And, if the CNRT-led alliance can form a government, we will have a strong opposition in parliament, which there wasn’t between 2015 and 2017.

We cannot have it both ways. One problem in Southeast Asia is too much political “stability,” with one-party states in Vietnam and Laos, an absolute monarchy in Brunei, and countries like Cambodia and Singapore being ruled by one party for decades (in Singapore’s case, since its independence in 1965). Granted, a stranglehold on politics in those countries has allowed for considerable economic progress, but at the expense of political liberty for their citizens.

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It would certainly be hypocritical to decry the undemocratic rule of the region’s “stable” polities while, at the same time, lambasting political instability in democratic Timor-Leste.