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Timor-Leste’s departing prime minister still seeks to play a major role in the country’s often volatile and rocky politics, writes Sue Ingram.
On 5 February, Timor-Leste’s long-serving prime minister and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, submitted his resignation to the president after publicly signalling his intention to step down a few weeks earlier.
It’s not completely out of the blue. Gusmao first spoke seriously about resigning mid-term well over a year ago, but then pulled back. Now he is finally passing on the torch. But even as he vacates the office, he is seeking to have a major hand in the country’s political future.
An interesting political dance is now underway as Gusmao seeks to anoint his preferred successor, someone from the official opposition party. It is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that he will succeed, given the provisions of the Constitution and the disposition of the political parties in the Parliament – but it is looking likely.
Gusmao heads a coalition government formed after the 2012 Parliamentary election which gave his party, CNRT, the biggest vote share but one that fell well short of a majority. He stitched together a coalition with two smaller parties leaving the second-ranking party and his old partisan foe, FRETILIN, in opposition.
Back in 2012, the formation of government took an ugly turn after the CNRT party congress rejected widespread calls for a government of national unity that included FRETILIN. Congress participants emphatically and very publicly scorned the prospect of working with FRETILIN, precipitating a spike of violence in the capital and an eastern regional centre after an otherwise generally peaceful election period.
Since the 2012 election Gusmao and the Secretary-General of FRETILIN, Mari Alkatiri, once bitter political enemies, have seemingly become new best friends. In 2013 the Gusmao government appointed Alkatiri to the tailor-made post of Government Representative on the Special Economic Zone of Oecussi, Alkatiri participated in the party congress of CNRT and Gusmao attended the 40th anniversary celebration of FRETILIN’s formation, and for the last two years the government’s annual budget bill has been passed unanimously after negotiation between government and opposition benches. In February 2014, Alkatiri joined Gusmao during a state visit to China.
Now Gusmao is proposing that Dr Rui Araujo, a former Minister for Health in the Alkatiri-led government of 2002-2006, become prime minister. Araujo is objectively a sound choice; competent and experienced in the business of government and no party hack.
Under Article 106 of the Constitution of Timor-Leste, the president, in this case Taur Matan Ruak, another old-guard former resistance fighter, appoints the prime minister. But the power is narrowly defined. The Constitution stipulates that the prime minister is designated by the political party or alliance of political parties with a parliamentary majority, and the president makes the appointment after consultation with the political parties represented in the Parliament.
Gusmao, as president, tested the limits of presidential discretion under Article 106 during the political and security crisis of 2006 when he effectively forced then Prime Minister Alkatiri to resign. In an extremely volatile environment, President Gusmao resisted discussions with the FRETILIN party leadership on the grounds of contested legitimacy, consenting instead to deal with the party’s parliamentary leaders.
As the game of political hard ball continued, he accepted an agreed slate of three names from which to appoint the next prime minister. The slate included the non-partisan Jose Ramos-Horta, from the outset Gusmao’s preferred candidate. The other two people on the list, one of whom was Rui Araujo, were appointed as deputies to the new prime minister.
While the designation of Araujo reportedly has the blessing of the FRETILIN leadership, there are rumblings from within Gusmao’s own party and his coalition partners. But in the end the elites in the coalition parties may have nowhere else to go. Gusmao is the president of CNRT, the party he created in 2007 as a platform to seek the prime ministership, and it is the head of the party with whom the president consults, despite the 2006 precedent.
The coalition partners also have little choice: if FRETILIN and CNRT are in agreement, then potentially the other two parties are out in the parliamentary cold. They might be part of a majority alliance today, and Article 106 does refer to “the political party or alliance of political parties with a parliamentary majority”, but alliances can be dissolved as easily as they are made.
Securing the right prime minister is crucial for Gusmao, who for several weeks has been planning the restructuring and downsizing of his bloated and underperforming executive of 54 ministers, vice-ministers and secretaries of state. Under the Constitution, it is the prime minister who proposes the remaining members of the government for appointment by the president.
The sequencing for this process becomes intriguing. An announcement on 9 February from the president’s office advised that President Taur Matan Ruak had accepted the prime minister’s resignation and that the resignation of the prime minister in turn triggered the resignation of the government. Current office holders, however, remain in place until the swearing in of the new prime minister and government. This raises the question of whether Gusmao will step back from shaping the new government, or continue to do so behind the scenes.
It has been suggested that Gusmao will retain some role in the new government, possibly as a coordinating minister (The Guardian). This could make for interesting relationships in the future, given his strong policy leadership on national development as prime minister and wide-ranging scepticism about his massive Tasi Mane infrastructure project.
What is certain is that each change of government in Timor-Leste has raised tricky political and constitutional questions. In 2002, it was the decision that the constituent assembly should morph into the first parliament at independence which in turn launched Alkatiri into prime ministerial office.
In 2006 it was the contested process for designating a prime minister after Alkatiri’s forced resignation, while in 2007 it was the constitutional and political imbroglio over whether the president should first approach the party with a plurality of votes to attempt to form a government.
And in 2012 it was the uncompromising rejection of calls from the former president, the bishop and others for a government of national unity.
The question now is whether the 2015 transition will also present new constitutional and political challenges.
Sue Ingram is a PhD candidate in the State, Society and Melanesia Program at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. She held several appointments in UN peacekeeping missions in Timor-Leste before and after independence.