Hanging by a Thread: Timor-Leste Government Losing Grip on Power

6 December 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


According to a press release published by Scoop, the Central committee of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente, or Fretilin), met at the party’s headquarters on 2 December to discuss the political climate facing the party. Prime Minister Dr Mari Alkatiri, who is also the Secretary-General of Fretilin, which leads the ruling coalition, expressed his frustration to the three hundred attendees:

[The opposition] voted against the government programme, a pro-people programme. They voted against the request to accelerate the procedural protocol for debate of the amending budget proposal. A budget that would cover necessary expenses. They boycott the work and functioning of the National Parliament Commissions. They present motions without strong arguments, without fundamental base. All because they want to perform a coup against the government elected by a majority.

Alleged coup attempts against Fretilin and a proposal on 2 December to remove the President of Parliament were also discussed at the meeting. The final members of the current parliament had been sworn in on 3 October.


The problems faced by the government stem from the close result of the recent elections. On 20 March 2017, Francisco Guterres, the leader of Fretilin, won the presidential election and led his party to win parliamentary elections held in July. The Fretilin victory was narrow, however, and forced Guterres to seek out a new coalition partner after the alliance with the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor, CNRT) fell through. In the end, the party had to settle for a coalition that secured only 30 of the possible 65 seats in parliament. For the first time since independence, Timor-Leste is under the rule of a minority government.

While minority governments are not uncommon for such a political system, it has become a sore point for Fretilin. In October, the opposition indicated that it was prepared to form a majority parliamentary alliance while politicians signed a letter addressed to Guterres which criticised his decision to form a minority government. The letter also stated that the opposition was ‘willing to present an alternative government solution’, a potential threat to oust Fretilin’s coalition from power.

The dissolution of the ruling coalition is a very real possibility which could be triggered if Fretilin’s proposed 2017-22 legislative programme is rejected twice in parliament. The first proposal was rejected on 19 October, with the parliament voting along party lines of 30 for and 35 against. According to parliament press releases analysed by La’o Hamutuk, the nature of the debate prior to the vote was shallow. The opposition allegedly focussed on generalised arguments and criticised the coalition for leading a minority government while paying very little attention to the actual substance of the proposal. That gives little hope for the second proposal which, as of writing, is yet to be debated.

If the government is dissolved, which appears to be a likely scenario, the president will need to examine the possibility of another party or coalition forming a government. If no suitable government is decided, then another round of parliamentary elections will take place early next year (likely to be in March). According to David Hutt, writing in the Diplomat, conflicting interests within the opposition mean that it is unlikely that it will be able to form a stable coalition to take the reins of power. Michael Leech, in the Lowy Interpreter, on the other hand, sees it as a viable alternative to Fretilin occupying the roles of President, Prime Minister and President of Parliament, despite receiving only thirty per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election.

Whatever the outcome, the ensuing governmental instability is unwelcome news for the people of Timor-Leste and for Australia. Timor-Leste needs a strong, stable government to effectively steer its economy through troubled waters. There is a tangible risk that the government could run out of the funds needed to establish an economy that is not wholly reliant on limited oil reserves for its survival. Gaining access to the reserves in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field is essential to surmounting this risk. While negotiations on a treaty with Australia regarding Greater Sunrise are tracking well, any treaty will still need to be passed through the parliaments of both countries. Instability in the Timor-Leste parliament could mean that the treaty, which is due to be finalised in early 2018, may be delayed by a number of months.

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