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In East Timor: Debating the Constitution in Preparation for a Change of Government

July 11, 2007

On June 30th, East Timor’s citizens cast ballots in the first parliamentary election since independence in 2002. After an intense election campaign in which a record 12 parties and 2 coalitions competed — criss-crossing this small and mountainous half-island nation to hold rallies and conduct door-to-door visits — over 81% of the electorate turned out for a largely peaceful and well-run election day. Results indicate that 7 parties or alliances won seats in the new 65-member Parliament. They help to ensure a pluralistic policymaking process but, with no party winning the 51% needed for a parliamentary majority, the country now faces the daunting challenge of forming a government that will have reasonable prospects for stability and durability over the next five year period.

After a tough first five years of independence, the Timorese are now gaining critical lessons in Constitutional Studies 101. Among political scientists and commentators, avid debate on the meaning and intent of Article 106 in the Constitution is racing over the internet. Political parties are positioning themselves as election results have been certified by the National Election Commission for ratification by the Court of Appeal. President José Ramos-Horta is faced with the weighty and real-life challenge of applying the Constitution to current circumstances and interpreting both the language and intent of the Constitution in carrying out his duty to request formation of the next government. Once the President receives the ratified election results, questions about which party or party alliance should be asked by the President to form the government, and about the President’s responsibility and discretion in making the request, are no longer theoretical.

By virtue of the votes cast on June 30th, two parties gained 21 and 18 seats in the new Parliament, two gained 11 and 8 seats, and three a handful of seats ” none achieving the 33 required for a parliamentary majority. Fretilin, the party that led East Timor’s long struggle for liberation and headed by former prime minister Marí Alkatiri, won 29% of the vote – a stunning set-back after its record 57.8% in the 2001 election ” and has argued that the Constitution provides for formation of the government by the party winning the most votes. While the Constitution does seem to allow for a minority government, Fretilin would then be required to forge perpetual parliamentary alliances to gain sufficient votes for approval of its annual budget and all proposed legislation. In contrast, former president Xanana Gusmão’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) won 24.1% of the vote, and has proposed an alliance with the Democratic Party (11.3% of the vote) and the coalition of Social Democratic Association of Timor (ASDT) and Social Democrat Party (PSD) (15.8% of the vote), which would achieve a narrow 51% parliamentary majority. Since the Constitution explicitly states that two rejections of annual budgets leads to dissolution of the government and new elections, a unified opposition sets up the ominous specter of a short-lived government that could increase instability in a country still reeling from violent unrest triggered by last year’s events.

Though not flawless, the government’s administration of its first parliamentary election is a credit to East Timor, especially under the daunting circumstances of unseasonably heavy rains that complicated delivery and retrieval of ballot boxes, and a late amendment in the electoral law that shifted ballot counting from scores of polling stations to the 13 district centers. With this accomplishment, the greater historic challenge is formation of a stable government with a sufficient mandate and political legitimacy to deal decisively, transparently, and accountably with the country’s immense challenges. This begins with resolving the complex and sensitive issues surrounding the ongoing political violence that took place in April and May 2006, while tackling the significant developmental needs of this young nation. As political parties carry out the high-level negotiation over coalitions, and authorities deliberate the Constitutional provisions for formation of a new government, ordinary Timorese wait for leaders to deliver on their hopes and aspirations and bring stability, safety, and prosperity to this young democracy.

Katherine S. Hunter is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for East Timor.

View all posts by Katherine S. Hunter

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