22 October 2017

Constitutional Crisis Possible as East Timor's Government strengthens security after Parliament rejects Government Program

Tribunal de Recurso, Timor-Leste
East Timor Court of Appeal
ETLJB 22 Oct 2017 Amidst shouts of "Traitors!" against the opposition parties, the FRETILIN-led minority government headed by FRETILIN founder, Mari Alkatiri, has had its program rejected by the National Parliament. The minority FRETILIN-PD government controls only 30 of the 65 seats in the Legislature. CNRT, KHUNTO and PLP hold the remaining 35 and have declared a Parliamentary Majority Alliance.

Meanwhile, Lusa reports that the Defence and Security Minister of Timor-Leste announced today that he has instructed the authorities to reinforce preventive measures in the country, particularly in the capital Dili, after the opposition rejected the Government Program.

Civil society organisation Fundasaun Mahein (FM) has issued a press release stating that the movement of people out of the capital city, Dili, has already begun with foreigners fleeing the country as well amidst fears of the country collapsing into violent conflict reminiscent of the 2006 Crisis.

FM says that "Anxiety is growing among the people of Timor-Leste. Conflicting interpretations of the Constitution mean that the main political parties do not agree about what will happen in the event that the Government falls."

Under the Constitution, the minority FRETILIN Government, headed by Mari Alkatiri, will fall if the National Parliament rejects the government's program again. It has already been rejected once.

Accordingly, a constitutional question arises about which there is some dispute. There are two possible interpretations of the Constitution which remains quiet on this question. The question is what happens if the Alkatiri government's program is rejected a second times. Firstly, regard must be had to section 112(2) of the Constitution. It raises the first problem of construction of the constitutional text. Section 112(2) seems to confer a discretion on the President not to dismiss the Prime Minister even if section 112(1)(d) is enlivened because of the additional words in that provision "when it is deemed necessary to ensure the regular functioning of the democratic institutions and after consultation with the Council of State."

If the political leaders and parties are unable to reach a political compromise and, if necessary, take the issue to the Court of Appeal for a lawful peaceful resolution, then there remains the potential for political and social conflict. The government clearly does not have a democratic mandate. The opposition parties seem intransigent in relation to the Government Program. Until the constitutional debate is settled, the potential for unrest will remain.

Then there is a second issue as articulated by FM that, "according to the FRETILIN-PD coalition, the Constitution states that in this situation the President of the Republic must call early elections. In contrast, the opposition parties—namely the CNRT, PLP, and KHUNTO—argue that after the fall of the Government, the President of the Republic must offer the opposition parties the chance to form a governing coalition. In preparation for this contingency, the three opposition parties declared themselves a “Parliamentary Majority Alliance” last Thursday."

FM posits that the "contradictory interpretations make many Timorese people recall the 2006 Crisis, in which competition between different political actors led to chaos in Dili" and that, recalling the chaos of 2006,  many East Timorese "fear that the ongoing political tensions could lead to the return of foreign military forces to Timor-Leste."

According to FM, the exodus has already begun such is the fear of the threat of conflict. "Every day, increasing numbers of people board buses bound for the rural districts, indicating a desire to escape the political tensions in Dili. Even more disturbingly, more and more people are exiting Timor-Leste altogether, either by airplane or across the land frontier with Indonesia. These trends reflect concerns that, as in 2006, political power struggles will disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens. In the absence of constructive political action, this panic will persist."

But the Commander of the East Timor National Police is reported to have said publicly that the situation on the territory of Timor-Leste is of "total tranquility", without reports of serious incidents during the week in which the Government's program is being discussed.

"The situation is totally quiet throughout the territory. There are rumors and rumors that spread in the community but that later our information services confirm not to be true. It's all calm, "said Julio Hornay, speaking to Lusa in Dili."

Warren L. Wright BA LLB

Legal opinion on the appointment of the Prime Minister and the formation of the Government in Timor-Leste
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