For the second time in president Lu Olo's term (elected 2017), Timor-Leste is experiencing a severe political crisis and has been without a functioning government since early January.
Late in 2019, the government of prime minister Taur Matan Ruak was forced to withdraw its proposal for a state budget for 2020, as pressure mounted within its support basis in the House to introduce significant changes. The public rationale for those pressures related to the exceedingly high level of public spending contemplated in the proposal (it would have been the second highest budget in Timor-Leste's brief history), coupled with the fact that the execution of the 2019 budget was very low, even in comparison to the country's standards (it was thought to be short of 70% of the anticipated spending). At the same time, voices were heard claiming that president Lu Olo's refusal to nominate a dozen important members of the government – persisting after eighteen months since the swearing in of the prime minister – was negatively affecting the executive's capacity to perform according to expectations and faithfully execute the budget.
Prime minister Taur Matan Ruak prepared a second draft of the budget, which he introduced early in 2020. When it came to the vote, it was formally defeated. Only his own party and a junior coalition partner (KHUNTO) supported the bill. The main party in the support basis, Xanana Gusmao's CNRT, was divided between voting against or abstaining. So were the two opposition parties. Taur Matan Ruak proclaimed the coalition that had won the early elections of May 2018 "no longer exists" – but stopped short of resigning. The crisis was open. This time, the issue of the composition of government was brought to the fore.CNRT is the largest party in the Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP), the ruling coalition, with 21 seats (the House has 65). Its partners have 8 and 5. Still, CNRT has a very small representation in the national government, due to the opposition moved by president Lu Olo to the appointment of a dozen cabinet members, almost all of them from the ranks of this party. This contradicts the terms accepted by all three government partners to share ministerial portfolios. As explained in earlier posts, Lu Olo has objected to those names on the basis of their "lack of moral standings" as well as their alleged involvement in corruption scandals (the judicial branch has not moved charges against any of them). This position has been unchanged since June 2018, and has triggered a tug-of-war – including, for instance, the National Parliament denying all attempts by the president to secure permission to travel abroad – which has now come to the breaking point. Taur Matan Ruak is accused by CNRT of being too complacent towards the president, not to exert enough pressure to secure the nomination of the rejected ministers and to be satisfied with the status quo that grants him a comfortable majority in the Council of Ministers. Refusal to support the government's proposed budget became the means through which the CNRT could flex its muscles and generate a situation of make it or break it. Les jeux son faits.
President Lu Olo possesses the key to solve the problem, but it is uncertain what his position will be. For a start, he has asked the prime minister to carry on until a solution id found. The Constitution stipulates that, after 60 days without a state budget, the president is entitled to call early elections (it would be the second time the East Timorese would go to the polls earlier than anticipated, both occurring since Lu Olo is president). This points to March 1 as the date from which presidential powers are enlarged – even though he might have other grounds to dissolve the National Parliament even before that day.
The president has had more than one round of conversations with the parliamentary parties. He has put on hold formally summoning the Council of State, his official consultative body that must be heard before a dissolution of parliament is decided. Instead, he has has several meetings with people who are widely believed to retain – out of any official capacity – the reins of power in Timor-Leste, locally referred to as "katuas" (the elders). These include Xanana Gusmao (who has been reluctant to join with others); the leader of FRETILIN (the largest party in the House, and the president's party), Mari Alkatiri; the former president Jose Ramos-Horta; and the leader of the army, Lere Anan Timur. They all belong to the "Generation of 75" – actors that were present in the events of 1975 when Portugal set in motion the self-determination of the territory that was thwarted by the Indonesian invasion of 7 December 1975. Those people have accumulated 45 years of tense and conflictual relations with personal issues interfering with their willingness to cooperate.
At the time of writing, two avenues seem to be possible. First, the appointment of a new government based on a parliamentary majority that may be different from the one emerging from the 2018 elections. The pre-electoral coalition seems to be broken for good, which leaves the possibility to form different arrangements. CNRT (21 seats) could garner a majority with KHUNTO (5 seats), a partner in AMP coalition; with Partido Democratico (5 seats); and with three smaller parties which have one seat each. FRETILIN seems to prefer to wait for the normal elections in 2023, but might be persuaded to try and join forces with others. There are indeed many possibilities within the present composition of the National Parliament. In order for CNRT to be part of the solution, president Lu OLo would have to consider appointing its ministers – or for CNRT to change its intention to impose his main leaders and accommodate the president's objections. The alternative is to call fresh elections, which the president can do without limitations after March 1st
The present crisis reveals three important aspects of the East Timorese political system. First, the existence of de facto powers entrusted to personalities that may not hold any official function – the "katuas" – in lieu of having them sit in the Council of State (of which some are formal members) which is the constitutionally grounded consultative body of the president of the Republic. Frequent ad hoc meetings of key figures outside the framework of constitutional institutions increases the sense that there is a theatre of shades where democracy should respect formalities.
Second: it has been often argued that the powers of the president of the Republic in Timor-Leste are weak. For instance, a comparative study of semi-presidentialism in Lusophone countries suggested that presidential powers were at their lowest level in Timor-Leste. However, the reality seems to be slightly different. Consider the case of the power to "appoint, swear in and remove Government Members from office, following a proposal from the Prime Minister" (CRDTL, Section 86h). This might be regarded as a formality. But it contains the power not to do what the prime minister proposes. Nobody questioned the legality of Lu Olo's refusal do appoint the ministers proposed by the prime minister. The prime minister himself, in his earlier capacity as president of the Republic (2012-2017) acted in the same way and denied the prime minister agreement for some ministers. Jose Ramos-Horta (president 2007-2012) did the very same. If in those two cases the opposition was based on the appreciation of the personal adequacy of those being proposed to discharge the job, in the case of Lu Olo – the first president who is simultaneously a leading figure in his political party, and who was facing a situation of co-habitation in which his party is sitting in the opposition – reasons escalated to a political confrontation. Ultimately, Lu Olo is using his powers not to appoint several ministers in order to prevent the majority coalition from exercising power in line with its parliamentary basis. In particular, he is denying the largest party in the ruling coalition the right to have its share of appointees to the Council of Ministers. This is certainly not a minor detail: it places the president at the centre of the composition of governments. As such, it reveals another item in the presidential toolbox that make this figure an important figure in the constellation of political powers in Timor-Leste
Lastly, the mandate of president Lu Olo reveals how different it is from those of his predecessors who assumed an "independent" position vis-a-vis the political fray. Many observers have downplayed this difference, arguing that, even if they did not formally represent political parties, presidents Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos-Horta and Taur Matan Ruak had their sympathies. The way in which Lu Olo is discharging the same functions is significantly different inasmuch as he systematically aligns his positions with those of his party, which now sits in the opposition. Even in the crisis of 2017, which eventually led to the dissolution of parliament in January 2018 and early elections in May, Lu Olo performed in line with FRETILIN, declining to exhaust the possibilities of forming a majority government within the extant parliamentary composition. To be an "independent president" is not merely a question of political rhetoric: it touches upon the critical issue of the relations between president and government. The track record of political instability that developed after Lu Olo's election in 2017 offers a sharp contrast to the overwhelming peaceful relations of previous situations (maybe with the exception of 2006) in which presidents were not active party members