Timor-Leste: Political Tension Between The Head of State And The Government


Anthony L Smith

On 14 April 2002, long time icon of East Timor’s independence, José 'Xanana' Gusmão, was overwhelmingly elected as the first president of East Timor, which gained full independence on 20 May 2002. Gusmão’s election as Head of State was a sure bet, given his broad appeal with the people of East Timor. This followed on from the 2001 constituent elections, which delivered a victory to Fretilin – the party best known for its role in East Timor’s independence. East Timor currently has the kind of stable leadership that many other democratising states can only envy. However, tensions that were barely below the surface prior to Gusmão’s election are now quite evident.

The political system drawn up by East Timor’s Constituent Assembly is somewhat similar to the system in Portugal (although Mozambique provided a good deal of inspiration for Fretilin’s leaders, including chief minister, Marí Alkatiri). Executive power rests with the government party in parliament while the Head of State is largely ceremonial. However, it is obvious that beyond the formal confines of power, Gusmão brings enormous charismatic clout to the position.

Although Gusmão is a great symbol of East Timor’s self-determination, his relationship with Fretilin is complex. Gusmão not only cut formal ties with Fretilin some years ago, but has insisted for several years that he did not wish to be President. After pressure from a number of East Timor’s leaders he backtracked on his earlier rhetoric and announced his candidacy in 2001. However, during the 2001 constituent election Fretilin insisted that they would only support Gusmão as Head of State if he did not align himself with any particular party. In turn, Gusmão went on record as saying that an overwhelming Fretilin victory would be unhealthy for democracy – a statement that seriously reduced Fretilin’s winning margin to a point where it missed obtaining its desired 'super majority' of two-thirds, forcing the party to rely on smaller parties for support in order to pass the constitution.

In the election for president in April this year, Gusmão faced a sole challenger – Xavier do Amaral, the elderly pro-independence leader who was president for 9 days in 1975. Xavier do Amaral established the Timorese Social Democratic Union (ASDT) just before the last elections, and has an understanding with ruling party Fretilin. There have been reports that some within Fretilin attempted to whittle down the scale of Gusmão’s victory by quietly urging voters to either abstain or invalidate ballots. In the end Gusmão won 82.6% of valid votes, with a voter turnout of 86.3% - a decided drop from voter participation in the Referendum and the constituent elections.

Gusmão’s relationship with Fretilin has become quite rocky since he took office. Arguments have emerged with Gusmão over the president’s right to grant amnesty, make diplomatic appointments and, above all, his involvement in the macro-economic management of the country. The July budget was delayed by two weeks after the President expressed his displeasure over provisions that he believed served not the people but those in power – including, in the President’s words- the 'majority parliamentary group'. Later that month Gusmão vetoed a taxation law on the grounds that it had 'contradictions' (meaning that it impacted on the poor and would frighten away investors). Gusmão has not been muted in his criticism of the Fretilin government. The Gusmão-Fretilin relationship is of great importance to East Timor’s future political development. But the honeymoon, such as it ever was, is well and truly over.

(The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect US Policy, the position of The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, US Pacific Command, Department of Defence or any US Governmental agency.)

WATCHPOINT: How will East Timor’s democratic institutions (and constitution) stand up to the growing differences between the Head of State and Executive/ruling party?


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