Written by Rui Graça Feijó.

In 1974, following the 1974 Portuguese Carnation Revolution, Timor Leste was poised to end its struggle for self-determination. However, the process was interrupted when Indonesia invaded the territory in 1975, putting an end to the unilaterally-declared independence, installing instead a neo-colonial, brutal, domination.

Under the aegis of the United Nations, a ‘Popular Consultation’ was held which brought almost every single Timorese to the polls. They overwhelmingly voted (78.5 percent) for independence. This clear win was soon followed by a period which has been described as “the descent of hell on earth”: much of the infrastructure was destroyed and people were forced to flee the country. In brief, public administration, or the basic tenets of a functional state, disappeared over the course of a fortnight.

The legislative elections went as anticipated: the government parties gained more than two-thirds of the vote. However, the situation turned unexpectedly sour when Xanana declared he’d rather be in the opposition to a FRETILIN-led government

After the Indonesians were forced to withdraw in 1999, the UN and its peacekeepers stepped in with a medium-term mission to rebuild the country with essential state functions, to ensure that Timor Leste became a stable independent state. In 2002, independence was proclaimed in Timor Leste to international acclaim and immediate recognition. The Timorese had elected a Constituent Assembly to draft the Fundamental Law. The choice embodied by the novel constitution represents a bold and original decision: to build a new state and a democratic regime.

Although this may appear as a simple consequence of the international order – the construction of the state being a condition to sustain the territory in the international arena, and democracy being l’air du temps of the “international community” of donors and supporters – in fact it represented something wholly different from previous experiences. Prior to this the dictum, “No State, no Rechtsstaat, no Democracy” held – one needs a functioning public administration before the rules under which it performs can make a transition to democracy. The Timorese challenged this assumption.

The fundamental choices made by Timor-Leste adhere to Arend Lijphart’s formula for the constitutional design of divided societies; the choice of power sharing mechanisms being at the core of the political system. In this vein, Parliament is elected by proportional representation, ensuring that minority voices have a fair number of seats (the minimum number of parliamentary parties currently stands at five). A semi-presidential system of governance was chosen – that is, one in which the president and the prime minister are elected by direct popular suffrage. In this way, and by virtue of the regular choices of “independent” (non-partisan) presidents who place their activity above the party fray, power is shared and its accumulation in one single actor is made difficult.

After fifteen years of independence and democracy, the overall image that emerges (and is confirmed by indices such as those published by Freedom House, Polity IV or the Economist’s Intelligence Unit) is of a country that enjoys significant levels of freedom, rule of law (the Constitution has never been put on hold) and holds regular, free and fair elections. The people have voted to return previous presidents and governments. Of course, not all features of democracy are equally upheld: significant constitutional provisions still require implementation (namely local governance), and there are some major weaknesses in the judicial system. The country has also been subject to political crisis, one of large proportions (2006), others less important (2008, 2015).

In 2015, the government adopted a new format, with the executive now supported by all parties in the House: the ‘Government of National Inclusion.’ This government – where the two largest parties, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT)  agreed to share power – had been a dream of the charismatic nationalist leader Xanana Gusmão. Gusmao stepped down from the premiership to make way for what was hailed as the “replacement of belligerent democracy by consensus democracy”. As the 2017 electoral cycle approached, expectations were high that the agreement between the two main parties might survive beyond the elections, despite the then president’s severe criticism of strategic options and his decision to create his own party. They struck a deal to support a single candidate for the presidency (FRETILIN’s Lu Olo), who easily won the election and became the first ever president to be a member of a political party.

The legislative elections went as anticipated: the government parties gained more than two-thirds of the vote. However, the situation turned unexpectedly sour when Xanana declared he’d rather be in the opposition to a FRETILIN-led government, the same position that the former president Taur Matan Ruak had adopted. FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri thus presided over the first ever minority government in Timor-Leste. FRETILIN held all three major posts in the state: the presidency, the premiership and the speaker of the House – thus denying the ethos of power sharing that had presided over Timorese political mores for the last fifteen years.

This signalled the beginning of an intense political struggle that continues. The opposition voted against the minority government’s programme and therefore interrupted its investiture. The prime minister must submit a second programme, within thirty days, but has failed to do so. The opposition tabled a motion of rejection to the government, which would bring it down immediately – but the Speaker is refusing to convene the House for this debate and vote. The opposition responded by tabling a motion to dismiss the Speaker – and he has referred the matter to the Courts. Political rhetoric is burning hot.

The president has several options if, and when the government fails for a second time in the House. If he accepts the same parliament, he may try and form a new coalition; he may seek an “independent” formateur who might be able to resurrect the “Government of  National Inclusion”; or he may entrust the premiership to the post-electoral coalition that commands the majority of seats. He may, however, dissolve parliament and call fresh elections for late March – meaning a new government would not be in place much before May. In the meantime, the country has no more than a caretaker government and no approved budget for 2018.

For all these reasons, democracy is now under considerable stress in Timor-Leste.

Rui Graça Feijó (D.Phil Oxon 1984) has been devoting his attention to political developments in Timor-Leste since Independence, mainly focusing on the institutional performance of democracy. He has published Dynamics of Democracy in Timor-Leste, 1999-2012, The birth of a democratic nation (Amsterdam University Press 2016), and he is a regular contributor to Robert Elgie’s blog www.presidential-power.com
Image Credit: CC by Peter Shanks/Flickr


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