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East Timor: fight over speaker's job descends into brawl over his chair

Sydney Morning Herald - May 19, 2020

Lia Timson – East-Timor's Prime Minister has asked the Timorese people to "maintain calm" and allow the country's leaders to restore order, after Parliament devolved into pushing and shoving for a second consecutive day.

Jose Maria Vasconcellos, also known as Taur Matan Ruak, issued a statement saying people should go about their normal lives and let the leaders solve their problems.

In raucous scenes on Tuesday, the house's presiding table was literally overturned and MPs began banging on furniture to stop the day's session from going ahead. The presiding table is used by the National Parliament's president – equivalent to Australia's speaker of the house – and two vice-presidents, and represents the highest echelons of the government apart from the President and Prime Minister.

Chaos dominated the East Timor Parliament on Monday and Tuesday as opposing MPs tried to stop sessions to going ahead.

It is not the first time the political class in Dili has resorted to scuffles, but "this one is different in a sense that it's become so disruptive and so rowdy. We have not seen scenes like this in the Timorese Parliament since the restoration of independence in 2002," says Michael Leach, professor of Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Parliamentary vice-president Angelina Sarmento had to be protected by police officers as the room erupted into chaos.

Speaker Arao Amaral had called on Friday for President Francisco Guterres to dissolve Parliament and call an election, citing a "serious institutional crisis", according to local news agency Tafoli.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and East Timorese PM Taur Matan Ruak during a ceremony for the ratification of the maritime boundary treaty between Australia and East Timor in Dili last year.Credit:AAP

Amaral, from Xanana Gusmao's CNRT party, which is now in opposition, argued dissolution was required by the constitution once the state budget was not passed within 60 days. That deadline passed on March 18.

The remainder of the coalition – made up of Fretlin, Khunto and PLP – had earlier accused Amaral of abuse of power. The parties on Tuesday accused the opposition of vandalism.

Earlier this month, 18 MPs from CNRT were among 19 who asked the country's Court of Appeal to investigate Guterres, also known as Lu Olo, for allegedly violating the constitution.

On Friday, the court summarily dismissed the petition, arguing two thirds of Parliament were necessary to refer such a matter. The 19 signatures were well short of the 43 votes required.

By lunch time on Tuesday, using a portable microphone and sound speaker because the house's PA had been turned off, the vice-presidents managed to hold a vote and eject Amaral, electing Fretilin's Aniceto Guterres Lopes as new speaker with 40 votes out of 65.

Swinburne's Professor Leach said the vote was irregular as it had not been called by the speaker.

"If the vote is found to be lawful, it just means the new parliamentary majority will be in full charge of the parliamentary agenda. This would make it easier for the government to run its legislative agenda."

Amaral told Portuguese news agency Lusa he would appeal the "illegal vote" and only a court decision would make him decide whether to leave his post.

Ruak said the government had to concentrate its efforts on only two things: the fight against COVID-19 and the recovery of the economy."The workers and the families do not have money in their pockets. Products are not being sold. These are big challenges," Ruak said in his statement carried by Tafoli.

East Timor has recorded only 24 cases of COVID-19, from 1456 people tested for the new coronavirus, according to a government tally on May 17. All have recovered.

However, its economy is experiencing a sharp downturn, with international borders closed and tourism ground to a halt.

Last week the World Bank forecast the Timorese economy would retract at least 5 per cent this year due to the pandemic and the country's political uncertainty. It compares with last year's forecast of 4.6 per cent growth in 2020, Portuguese news agency Lusa reported.

In its A nation under pressure report, the bank said the country needed "ambitious political actions" and "strong political consensus" to "avoid the deepest economical shock in the history of Timor Leste since independence".

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/east-timor-fight-over-speaker-s-job-descends-into-brawl-over-his-chair-20200519-p54ucp.html