OCTOBER 7 2017

East Timor’s opposition threaten newly sworn-in minority government


East Timor’s three opposition parties say they are ready to form a parliamentary majority alliance to take office if programs of a newly sworn-in minority government fail to gain support, as political tensions rise again in Asia’s newest democracy.

The two-party government led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri holds only 30 seats in the 65-seat parliament, five less than the opposition parties, giving the government a tenuous hold on to power.

Politicians from the opposition National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) headed East Timor’s powerbroker Xanana Gusmao are among 35 MPs who have sent a letter to the country’s president Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres saying they are “willing to present an alternative government solution” that ensures “peace, stability and development.”

The letter signed also by MPs from the youth dominated Khunto party and the Popular Liberation Party (PLP), headed by former president Tuar Matan Ruak, criticised Mr Guterres for annointing a minority government “instead of taking steps to seek a solution that would guarantee a majority government.”

In September when he took office, Mr Alkatiri promised MPs from his Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the small Democratic Party would bring political stability to the half-island nation that has seen bouts of political turbulence in the past.

But behind-the-scene tensions could come to a head as early as this week when the government presents its program to parliament.

Under the country’s constitution the president is required to test whether another party can muster a majority if the government’s program is rejected twice.

Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, said that while the development is clearly a threat to the minority government it is not clear that an alternative majority alliance is being proposed.

He said there are as yet no signs that Mr Gusmao and Ruak – neither of whom have taken seats in parliament – have reconciled political differences.

Professor Leach said Mr Gusmao’s party MPs may have signed the letter to pressure the government to “stick to the policy settings” of the previous government that included building big spending mega-projects, such as an industrial complex on the country’s remote southern coast.

Professor Leach said what is less easy to understand is why Mr Ruak’s PLP, which explicitly ran against the policies of the former government, would support the letter.

“It may be that they see a general advantage in parliament flexing its muscles and in questioning the action of the president, who is also from Fretilin,” he said.

“Certainly the lack of active parliamentary oversight of the last government was a problem which will not occur in this term.”

Mr Gusmao, the country’s hero of independence and former president and prime minister who continues to wield enormous power, was out of East Timor when the letter was sent.

But analysts say his party MPs would not have signed it without his support.

Mr Gusmao led his country’s delegation that in September reached a landmark agreement with Australia on developing billions of dollars of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea that ended years of disagreement.

Details of the agreement that defines maritime boundaries as well as sharing arrangements for the US$50 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field are expected to be made public later in October.