Fretilin party supporters participate in an election campaign rally in Dili, Timor Leste on July 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Valentino Dariel Sousa
Fretilin party supporters participate in an election campaign rally in Dili, Timor Leste on July 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Valentino Dariel Sousa

Last year, Timor Leste was held up as a shining example of democratic progress after staging two successful elections after years of volatile and often violent politics. But a post-election constitutional crisis driven by political elite rivalries is putting the young nation to a new crucial test.

Last July, Fretilin and the National Congress of Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the country’s two largest political parties, won a combined majority at the parliamentary poll. Fretilin won 29.6% of the vote, accounting for 23 of the unicameral parliament’s 65 seats, while the CNRT ran a close second with 29.4% and 22 seats.

Many expected the two parties to continue their informal power-sharing arrangement that began in 2015 when CNRT chief and former independence leader Xanana Gusmao stepped down as prime minister and chose a Fretilin minister as his successor.

At the time, both agreed to put aside historical differences to form a “national unity” government, ushering in two years of political stability.

But shortly after July’s election CNRT announced it would not join Fretilin in a new coalition. This came as a surprise to many, including Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin’s secretary-general, who publicly predicted before the polls that the unity government would remain in place.

CNRT’s move meant poll winner Fretilin needed another ten seats to form a 33-seat majority government. But only the Democratic Party agreed to join, taking Fretilin’s total seats up to 30, and the two announced they would form a minority government.

Timor Leste President Francisco Guterres casts his ballot during the presidential election in Dili, March 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lirio da Fonseca

President Francisco Guterres, who won election last March and serves as Fretilin’s president, accepted the arrangement and Alkatiri was named prime minister.

But when parliament reconvened in October, three opposition parties – CNRT, People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and Khunto – decided to form what they called a “parliamentary majority alliance”, provocatively the name given to another CNRT-backed coalition that took power in 2007.

Together, the alliance holds a 35-seat majority in parliament. Days later, the minority government put forward its political program in parliament, which was rejected by the opposition coalition. Timor Leste’s constitution rules that if a government’s program is rejected twice then the government should be dissolved.

The minority government refused to hold parliamentary sessions during most of November and December, a move the opposition called “unconstitutional” since the government is obligated to resubmit its program to parliament within 30 days of it first being dismissed. In response, Alkatiri said the opposition coalition was trying to orchestrate a “coup.”

In December, the opposition alliance again voted down the Fretilin-led government’s program, triggering a constitutional crisis and another possible general election in the months ahead.

Timor Leste Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Lirio Da Fonseca

The causes behind the country’s latest political crisis are debatable. It is not unusual for Timor Leste’s political parties to fail to gain a majority in parliament, a situation usually resolved by forming a majority alliance with other parties.

CNRT’s decision to stop backing a “unity” government with Fretilin seemingly came out of the blue. Indeed, CNRT publicly supported Fretilin’s presidential candidate, Guterres, only a few months before the parliamentary polls.

Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Australia’s Deakin University, contends this is due to recharged enmity between Alkatiri and Gusmao, the two parties’ chiefs. “What Timor-Leste has witnessed is a clash of egos more than a clash of policy or ideology,” he recently wrote.

During the 2006 crisis, where intra-military dissent sparked widespread violence that forced then premier Alkatiri to resign, many suspected Gusmao had a hand in the unrest. But the two leaders’ mutual hostility lay dormant during the “unity” government.

Another explanation contends that political elites thought Alkatiri’s desire for power came at the expense of the national good. When Gusmao resigned as prime minister in 2015, he chose Fretilin’s Rui Maria de Araujo to succeed him.

Former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao (C) in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Lirio Da Fonseca

Araujo, in his fifties, was supposed to represent a shift away from the older, independence-era leaders who have dominated Timor Leste’s politics since independence from Indonesia was achieved in 2002.

“Alkatiri…broke the understanding he had with Gusmao that [the premiership] would be handed to a younger politician,” Kingsbury wrote.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Now that the minority government has twice failed to pass its program in parliament, Guterres must either call for new elections or ask another party to try to form a government.

There are rumors that CNRT might try to push its own attempt at governing with the support of its coalition partners, ensuring a majority in parliament despite placing second at last July’s election.

But most analysts expect Guterres will call for a new election when parliament reconvenes later this month. Constitutionally, parliament cannot be dissolved until January 22, or six months after the last elections.

Due to various timing issues, including the Easter holiday in the Catholic-majority nation, that could mean the country is without a functioning government for at least five months.

A Catholic Church in Dili, Timor Leste. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

The country currently does not have a budget in place for 2018, which some suggest could precipitate a financial crisis or paralyze the public sector. Until a new budget is passed the state must stick to the 2017 budget, which is badly under-allocated.

Moreover, a lengthy political vacuum could jeopardize the newly agreed bilateral treaty between Timor Leste and Australia over maritime borders and ownership of vast off-shore energy reserves. The treaty requires ratification later this year by Timor Leste’s parliament.

The new uncertainty has cast a cloud over the country’s politics after fair, free and peaceful elections, the first that did not require United Nations supervision. Voter turnout was around 75%, a clear sign Timorese have bought into democracy.

International monitoring groups, meanwhile, recently ranked Timor Leste as Southeast Asia’s most democratic nation.

Now, some fear a return of the political violence last seen in 2006, a murderous outbreak that saw foreign peacekeepers deployed to restore order. For others, it is another indication of the dominance of fractious political elites that many thought and hoped was on the wane.

A police officer stands guard during a Fretilin campaign rally ahead presidential elections, in Dili, March 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lirio da Fonseca 

The possible upcoming elections are “unlikely to reflect the peace and harmony that characterized those of 2017,” Kingsbury predicted.

Yet when compared to events elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the country’s current political crisis still looks rather tame. So far there are no indications that that an unconstitutional seizure of power is on the cards by either the government or opposition.

Alkatiri said late last year that “while some dance in parliament, we shall dance on the streets,” a comment interpreted as a threat to use street protests to counter the opposition coalition’s rejection of its governing program.

Concerns of new violence were eased somewhat when Lere Anan Timur, commander of Timor Leste’s defense force, said he would not tolerate any groups that try to stir instability.

No major public protests have been held, yet. And by most accounts the current constitutional crisis is still likely to be solved legally rather than through force. While Timorese voters may have to spend another day at the ballot box in the months ahead, it’s a preferable scenario to new rounds of deadly duels in the streets.

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