Dili (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A tense political situation threatens the institutional and economic stability of East Timor (Timor Leste), the Asian country with the highest percentage of Catholics (97 per cent).
Last year, the young nation showed democratic progress with two successful elections (presidential and parliamentary) after years of volatility and often violent politics.
However, as a result of intense political rivalries, the post-electoral constitutional crisis has put the country in front of a crucial test.
Last July, the country’s two largest parties, the Fretilin and CNRT*, took most seats in parliament. Fretilin won 29.6 per cent of the vote, taking 23 out of 65 seats in the unicameral parliament, whilst the CNRT came in second with 29.4 per cent and 22 seats.
Many expected the two parties to continue their informal power-sharing arrangement that began in 2015 when CNRT chief and former independence leader Xanana Gusmao stepped down as prime minister and chose a Fretilin minister as his successor.
The government of national unity ushered in two years of political stability. But shortly after July’s election the CNRT announced it would not join Fretilin in a new coalition.
When parliament reconvened in October, three opposition parties – CNRT, People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and Khunto – decided to form what they called a “parliamentary majority alliance”. This paralysed the Fretilin-led minority government, which can count on only 30 votes.
East Timor’s constitution rules that if a government’s programme is rejected twice then the government should be dissolved.
However, the minority government refused to hold parliamentary sessions during most of November and December, a move the opposition called “unconstitutional” since the government is obligated to resubmit its programme to parliament within 30 days of it first being dismissed.
In response, Fretilin leader and Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri said the opposition coalition was trying to orchestrate a “coup”.
In fact, in December, the opposition alliance again voted down the Fretilin-led government’s programme, triggering a constitutional crisis and another possible general election in the near future.
Since the minority government failed twice to get its programme through in parliament, President Francisco Guterres, elected in March and a member of Fretilin, is required to call either new elections or try to get someone else to form a new government.
Most analysts expect Guterres to call a new election when parliament reconvenes later this month. Constitutionally, parliament cannot be dissolved until January 22, or six months after the last elections.
Due to various timing issues, including the Easter holiday in the Catholic-majority nation, this could mean the country will be without a functioning government for at least five months.
The country currently does not have a budget in place for 2018, which some suggest could precipitate a financial crisis or paralyse the public sector. Until a new budget is passed the state must stick to the 2017 budget, which is badly under-allocated.
A lengthy political vacuum could also jeopardise the newly agreed bilateral treaty with Australia over maritime borders and ownership of vast off-shore energy reserves. The treaty requires ratification later this year by East Timor’s parliament.
* Freitlin: Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor); CNRT: Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução do Timor (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction)