Xanana Gusmão poised to return as Prime Minister of Timor-Leste

January and February 2020 have been a time of rapid political change in Timor-Leste. First the shock defeat of the 2020 Budget in the Parliament on January 17. Next the collapse of the government coalition, AMP, and a public statement by six allies on the formation of a new majority coalition on February 22, led by Xanana Gusmão’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). Then the request to resign by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak on February 25, 2020.

From January 17, President of the Republic Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres responded constitutionally by consulting widely among all parties, institutions, religious institutions, social groups and historic leaders in order to create a new government if possible, or if not, decide to call new elections for the 65-seat parliament.

On February 10, President Lu Olo consulted with the other historical leaders and personalities including Mari Alkatiri, José Ramos Horta, Taur Matan Ruak, Lere Anan Timur and Roque Rodrigues. Xanana Gusmão was also invited but did not attend the meeting, and gave no explanation.

At that meeting they all called for a constructive dialogue to find the best solution for the political-constitutional situation. They all agreed that an early election would be called if it was not possible to find a sound and stable government coalition. The leaders also decided that Taur Matan Ruak should continue to hold his position as Prime Minister while a solution was sought.

The collapsed AMP majority comprised Gusmão’s CNRT with 21 seats, Matan Ruak’s Popular Liberation Party with 8 seats, and Khunto with 5 seats. The new proposed coalition announced by Gusmão comprises CNRT, the Democratic Party with 5 seats, Khunto with 5 seats and three micro parties each with 1 seat - the United Party for Development and Democracy, Frente Mudança and the Timorese Democratic Union.

This leaves FRETILIN with 23 seats and PLP with its 8 to create an opposition with a total of 31 seats. FRETILIN is opposed to an early election, criticising an emerging political culture of disrespect for the voters’ decision. The next regular parliamentary elections would be in 2023, as the constitution provides for a 5-year parliamentary term. The next Presidential election is due in 2022. An early election took place on May 12, 2018.

The primary driver of this upheaval appears to be linked to the nomination of nine (now down to five CNRT members) for the new Cabinet proposed by Prime Minister Ruak after the 2018 early elections. These nominations had been rejected by President Lu-Olo, using his powers under article 74 of Constitution to guarantee the functioning of the democratic institutions and because of the importance of public trust in the nation’s leaders.

President Lu Olo questioned the integrity of these candidates and expected Government cooperation, but CNRT did not give in. Gusmão felt Prime Minister Ruak had not fought hard enough to get approval for those candidates.

As well, the PLP went to the 2017 and 2018 elections with a policy against mega economic projects, criticising both CNRT and FRETILIN. But in the AMP government dominated by CNRT, PLP would be implementing the US$16 billion Tasi Mane super mega project on the south coast, associated with the development of the Greater Sunrise Gasfields. The entire Petroleum Fund – the sovereign wealth fund – is also about US$16 billion.

CNRT has already signalled that it will re-nominate their controversial figures as Ministers, and thus a stand-off between Xanana Gusmão and the President will develop. The outcome is hard to predict.

This is an extraordinary development because Gusmão resigned as Prime Minister in February 2015, heaping criticism on himself for failing to clean up the corruption and poor outcomes of his government since 2007. He stayed on as the power-behind-the-throne of a government which included a FRETILIN Prime Minister and three other Ministers from FRETILIN. Gusmão went on to support Lu-Olo for President in 2017, but by the time of the parliamentary elections a few months later, he opted for CNRT to compete with FRETILIN rather than to continue cooperation.

FRETILIN won the most votes in that election and was able to form a minority government, but then Gusmão decided to block its program and its first attempt to pass a budget, eventually triggering the 2018 early parliamentary elections. This time Gusmão ensured that CNRT was part of a bigger bloc which would win the most votes, and supported the PLP leader Taur Matan Ruak to be Prime Minister, rather than be PM himself. And 18 months later he has again used the vote on the budget to destroy the government, his own government this time.

Gusmão had already achieved his major goal of having Timor-Leste take a controlling interest in the Greater Sunrise Gas fields, a goal which he had redefined as the latest frontier in the national liberation struggle, which he seems to believe he embodies.

Not long prior to that the national liberation project was defined as settling the seabed boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste, a goal achieved by allowing Australia a share of 30% in the Greater Sunrise Gas fields.

On the face of it, there was no need for Gusmão to remove Taur Matan Ruak as Prime Minister. But there will be a reason, and unfortunately it probably lies in the huge amount of public money committed to the Tasi Mane Project, and now also committed to the development costs of the Greater Sunrise Gas fields.

Peter Murphy

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