By Michael Sainsbury, Phnom Penh and Thomas Ora
Timor-Leste has lurched into a constitutional crisis after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s minority government failed to pass key legislation, including a fresh budget bill, in the week before Christmas.
Asia’s most Catholic nation is facing the prospect of a new government, or a second election inside nine months, as the country’s parliament remains in gridlock after the July 22 poll failed to deliver a workable majority in parliament.
Alkatiri’s Fretlin Party, which won the most seats in the election, and its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, hold 30 seats in the 65-seat legislature and must rely on the support of opposition MPs to have legislation passed.
Alkatiri who replaced party colleague Rui Maria de Araujo as PM following the July 22 election, had originally stitched together a workable majority coalition.
But only days ahead of being sworn in, the coalition’s third partner, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), walked away taking with it its five seats and Alkatiri’s majority.
Alkatiri, a Muslim in a country that is more than 90 percent Catholic, was forced to step down in 2006 before his term as the nation’s first ever prime minister was complete.
During a televised press conference from Singapore on Nov. 19, Timor-Leste’s opposition leaders assured the public that they were prepared to take over the leadership.
The broadcast featured the country’s elder statesman and former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao who was accompanied by Taur Matan Ruak, president of Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and Jose do Santos Naimori of Khunto Party.
“If the president gives us the responsibility to lead the country out of the current crisis, we will take it,” Gusmao said.
Alkatiri refused to convene parliament and claimed the opposition was trying to stage a coup, despite the fact that it is the president who swears in parliament.
Australian academic Damien Kingsbury has described it as a “government of national disunity” and Alkatiri as having a “controlling political style.”
Gusmao has been negotiating a new treaty with Australia over the spoils of the estimated A$50 billion ($US39 billion) maritime oil and gas reserves in the so-called Greater Sunrise deposit in the waters between the two nations.
He has not been in the country and it’s widely considered that his presence is needed for the political impasse to either be resolved or the government dissolved.
What happens next is now very much with President Francisco Guterres, a Fretilin colleague of Alkatiri .
Manuel Tilman, a Timor-Leste lawyer, agreed saying a political crisis would be precipitated if the government’s program is rejected by parliament again.
“This is in line with Article 112 of the constitution. If the government’s program is denied for a second consecutive time the government will fall,” Tilman told ucanews.com
Under Article 112, according to Tilman, President Guterres will have to consider how to form a new government if the current one is disbanded.
Options include offering it to Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) who gained the second largest amount of votes in the July 22 polls, or forming a “national unity” government.
If the dialogue between the political elites fails, the president can dissolve the national parliament as early as Jan. 22, Tilman said.
“The election could be in April 2018, but since that date coincides with Lent and Easter in the deeply Catholic nation, it is most likely to be in May 2018,” he added.
In the event of early elections in May, Timor-Leste could experience a financial crisis because the state budget has not been approved.
“I will make decisions according to the constitution so as not to burden the people and there will be no blood or injury, let alone deaths,” President Guterres said Dec. 4.
Further complicating matters was the Dec. 26 announcement, Australia and East Timor will sign a new treaty this year setting maritime boundaries in an effort to settle lingering disputes over lucrative oil and gas fields in the East Timor Sea.
The new treaty would be signed in March according to a directive from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But this needs the ratification of parliament which, by then, may be dissolved. Timor-Leste’s parliament is due to reconvene on Jan. 8.
Timor-Leste officially declared independence in 2002 after 24 years under Indonesian rule. But fifteen years after independence it continues to struggle to cope with poverty, lack of education and health services.