Fault lines

17 July 2012

In the wake of parliamentary elections, JOANNE WALLIS asks whether Timor-Leste has to choose between democracy and unity.

Timor-Leste held its parliamentary election on 7 July with incumbent Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT party pipping main rivals FRETILIN at the post. Resistance leader Gusmão’s CNRT received 30 seats; historical independence party FRETILIN received 25; Partido Democrático (PD), founded by members of the youth clandestine resistance, received eight; and a breakaway from FRETILIN, Frente-Mundaça, received two. As no single party achieved an absolute majority in the 65-seat parliament, they had to negotiate to form a ruling coalition.

As widely expected, CNRT has announced that it will partner with PD and Frente-Mundaça to form this coalition. This announcement puts to rest rumours of a grand coalition of ‘national unity’ between CNRT and FRETILIN, as advocated by former president José Ramos-Horta and the Catholic Bishop of Dili, Alberto Ricardo.

Timor-Leste politics has been riddled with divisions since independence, many of which stemmed from unreconciled grievances about the split between Gusmão and FRETILIN during the resistance. These divisions have seeped into wider society, with tensions over contributions to the resistance feeding into a major security crisis in 2006. The violence that has broken out since the new coalition government was announced signals the ongoing resonance of these tensions and the fragility of the security situation. If Gusmão and FRETILIN had agreed to work together in a grand coalition this could have opened the door for reconciliation at the elite and local levels. It might also have facilitated orderly generational change amongst the political leadership. As the United Nations and International Stabilisation Force are due to withdraw later this year, any move that could assist peace and stability was worth serious consideration.

Despite this, and the challenge of the current violence, a ruling coalition consisting of CNRT, PD and Frente-Mundaça offers the most potential for enhancing Timor-Leste’s nascent democracy. A critical part of a successful democracy is a loyal parliamentary opposition, capable of acting as a check and balance on the government. During the last parliamentary term FRETILIN performed relatively well in opposition, and this responsibility is even more vital in the current term, particularly as many of the smaller parties who performed key oversight roles in the committee system during the last parliament have failed to be returned. Moreover, while Ramos-Horta actively checked the government during his term as president, the new president, Taur Matan Ruak, is a close ally of Gusmão and may not be so active in this role.

The major challenges facing the incoming government are how to address widespread poverty and inequality, and how to spend Timor-Leste’s finite petroleum funds. During the last government Gusmão proposed a Strategic Development Plan to address these issues, which generated considerable controversy both within the parliament and during public consultations. This controversy, and the important decisions that have to be made in the next five years, reinforce the need for effective parliamentary oversight. This suggests that, while a grand coalition may have built much-needed national unity, democracy will be better served by FRETILIN operating as an effective opposition. While well-meaning, those who advocated a grand coalition appear to have failed to recognise that democracy offers the best hope of advancing Timor-Leste’s development, and consequently of generating sustainable unity

Dr Joanne Wallis is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Her research interests include state and nation-building in Timor-Leste.


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