East Timor’s democracy starting not so well

Xanana Gusmao named East Timor prime minister, triggering fresh violence in capital, is the International Herald Tribune’s effort. Not such a good start.

East Timor’s general election was a while ago, now. I wrote, just prior to it, about the President, Jose Ramos Horta, wanting a local version of the Hong Kong model of low taxation. Given the revenues they could expect off the Greater Sunrise Gas Field that they share with Australia, it wasn’t such a bad plan (I didn’t think).

The problem? A President is not much of a goverment, and the general elections haven’t gone so well. Nobody won a majority and attempts to form coalition governments of various stripes all stalled. So?

Fretilin won 21 seats in the 65-member parliament in the June polls, well short of a majority. Gusmao’s party won 18, but with its coalition partners controls 37 seats and argued it should have the right to rule.

After appealing for the two blocks to form a national unity government, Ramos-Horta used his constitutional right to appoint the prime minister on Monday, angering Fretilin leaders who insisted they had a constitutional right to form a government.

Needless to say, Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, or FReTiLIn) and their supporters were not supportive. The two very bad parts of the reaction. The first:

youths have already taken to the streets, throwing rocks and burning tyres.

A tax office was set alight before security forces moved in to disperse the crowds with tear gas, correspondents said.

The violence triggered fears of an end to the fragile peace that has held since mid-2006, when violent feuding between rival army and police units spilled out on to the streets.

More than 30 people were killed and thousands were forced to flee their homes in the 2006 unrest.

The clashes eventually led to the resignation of Mari Alkatiri, who was then prime minister.


angering Fretilin leaders who insisted they had a constitutional right to form a government.

“We regard it as a political and illegal decision and as such Fretilin will not work with this government,” said party head and former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. “We will do everything we can to raise awareness among the people so they can combat through legal means this usurping of power.”

That’s so you spot the agency problem: the leader of Fretilin is also the Prime Minister who lost his job after the biggest post-Independence descent into violence in East Timor. This may have affected the President’s sympathies, although perhaps not. The bandying about of what is and is not constitutional is a problem, for a 5 year-old country. It spells Future Functional Stalemate. That means no Hong Kong taxation, no proper development of the gas fields from their end. No serious work on the 50% unemployment rate (1 million people) or the refugee camps (150,000 people fled their homes last year; I don’t know how many have managed to return. Currently, many Fretilin supporters have moved in, stirring up trouble – meaning a social and socioeconomic rift is helping along the political one).

The violence is very problematic. East Timor is an international peacekeeper magnet. We will absolutely send troops in (we = Australia) if we think it will mess up our gas field plans. Hell, we’ll do it anyway just about of Asian-Pacific paternalism. Whether that became a problem would depend upon how worked up Indonesia would get – John Howard might just earn us another snub at the next ASEAN meeting, the bastard.

All of which is besides the point. With 50% unemployment, refugee camps, 20% facing food shortages on the backs of crop failures (East Timorese agriculture is as sensitive as Australia’s if not worse), they really need to settle into parliamentary democracy. Which I accept is easier said than done – you can count the number of democratic countries I’ve built on no fingers, so I won’t point the bone.

That Time article to which I linked is actually quite good, by the by. Give it a read if you have the time. It’s only a couple of pages.


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