Lia Timson – The East Timorese government is facing an unprecedented constitutional challenge, after 19 MPs submitted a petition to the country's Court of Appeal requesting President Francisco Guterres be investigated for allegedly violating the charter.
The MPs, 18 from previous coalition partner CNRT party and one from UDT/FM, are furious Lu Olo as the President is also known, hasn't allowed nine of their colleagues to take up their nominated positions in cabinet, two years after the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Xanana Gusmao's CNRT-led alliance collapsed earlier this year after Parliament failed to pass the 2020 state budget on January 17.
The budget has not yet been approved, exceeding the 60-day limit prescribed by the constitution, the group of MPs argues. In their petition, they say such failure should have triggered dissolution of Parliament.
Guterres has questioned the suitability of the nominated candidates. The inaction has left crucial ministries, such as health, finance and home affairs, vacant or in the hands of unsworn ministers at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is putting extra pressure on the Australian neighbour.
In addition, the budget impasse, caused Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, also known as Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, to tender his resignation but last month he withdrew it. He was reported as saying the President had not yet moved to accept or reject it, and he was needed to lead the government.
The Timorese Oekusi Post reported on Friday the petition requested Guterres' decisions be scrutinised "because the President of the Republic promised to abide by the constitution".
It quoted a lawyer for the group saying, "We understand that many of his actions until today have not answered what the constitution wants".
The lawyer told the Post's Raimundos Oki that if the high court decided in their favour, the government would be pressured to call fresh elections.
Michael Leach, professor of Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says the petition exposes the political rift between former coalition partners.
"What you have here is a claim from two parties that there is a constitutional crisis. The CNRT is arguing that, and they are entitled to do that, and the court will be assessing their claim," Leach said.
Leach says the result can't be predicted. "This constitutional challenge about presidential power hasn't happened previously in Timor-Leste."
The stand-off comes as the pandemic, which has triggered international border closures, has put extra pressure on government coffers and left locals fearing the virus after several Timorese who returned from overseas contracted COVID-19.
The country has so far been spared the worst, with only 24 confirmed cases, seven currently active, no deaths and no new cases since April 24. But fewer than 1000 people have been tested. A local laboratory started processing tests in the country last week, Portuguese news agency Lusa reported. Previous tests had to be sent to Darwin for result confirmation.
The Menzies School of Health Research and the World Health Organisation have provided 3500 tests and are working with the Timorese government to obtain more.
East Timor is, however, in the middle of a Dengue outbreak with 117 people, including 87 children, having contracted the mosquito-born disease and three children having died from it since January, according to the national hospital's figures.
Lusa reported it has lost about 95 per cent of tourism revenues due to the pandemic, quoting a study by the USAid-financed group Tourism for All.
It said the Timorese Social Security Department has been "inundated" with registrations from unemployed citizens, among them taxi drivers and transport workers, and from companies hoping to qualify for a special pandemic salary subsidy of 60 per cent.