ISSN 2330-717X

A Democratic Coup In Timor-Leste – OpEd

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By Jose Belo*

Timor-Leste’s general election in 2018 will prove to be like no other.

This is the first time in East-Timorese history that a minority government and the president of the republic have been forced into early elections — less than a year since the last general election in July 2017.

The May 12 election comes as a result of the current Fretilin and Democratic Party (PD) minority government having failed to pass any legislation in the government program in 2017.

Following the July 2017 election they formed a minority government in September since no party had won a clear majority.

Fretilin tried to form a coalition with the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), People’s Liberation Party (PLP) and the Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan — known as Khunto — but all disagreed with Fretilin’s approach to power sharing and declined.

Since then the opposition Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) comprising CNRT, PLP and Khunto, has placed considerable political pressure on the Fretilin/PD coalition with the result being the decision for early elections.

It is a make-or-break event in Timorese politics and there is clear intent on both sides to try and get a resounding victory and politically sideline their opponents. However, the story is much more nuanced, complicated and fundamental.

The governing principle behind the Fretilin administration is that it alone controls the primary levers of state — it does not share power easily, if at all.

Despite the gentleman’s agreement between leaders Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri in 2015 to step aside from the premiership role the Fretilin government has done many things in breach of this agreement.

This comes as a result of fundamentally differing styles of leadership. The Alkatiri model is domineering, rigid and inflexible. Gusmao’s, however, was flexible and one in which many people were brought into a big tent. It was designed to compromise and rule, rather than dictate and rule.

This comes from different historical experiences during the liberation struggle.

Gusmao’s clique managed a system of governing in the jungle based on internal compromise and negotiation. Meanwhile, the Alkatiri clique of exiles took ideological stands that were rigid in their stance.

It was easy to take Alkatiri’s position while in exile, but for those in the jungles and prisons of Timor-Leste, flexibility was needed to survive and in the end prosper and be victorious in the liberation struggle.

In 2002, when the first post-restoration of independence Fretilin government was formed it was dominated by outsiders such as Alkatiri, Rogerio Lobato, Roque Rodrigues, Ramos-Horta, Ana Pessoa, Estansilau da Silva and many others.

This group alienated the population, and eventually brought about a crisis in 2006, after which they fell from power.

Having been returned to the Government Palace in 2017, the same group has been on the ascendance and once again has refused to accommodate. As a result the people that fought in the jungles, towns and prisons of Timor-Leste and Indonesia are now once again lined up against the outsiders in the battle for power.

It is an open secret that Gusmao and Taur Matan Ruak are seeking to put an end to Alkatiri’s political career and return to government in the short term.

However, the long-term goal is to remove Alaktiri from the Fretilin Party structure and in effect reform the party from the outside in.

*Jose Belo is a journalist and commentator based in Dili.


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UCA News reports about the Catholic Church and subjects of interest to the Church in Asia. Through a daily service, UCA News covers lay activities, social work, protests, conflicts and stories on the faith lives of the millions of Catholics in Asia.

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