The end of coalition government: testing the limit of Timor-Leste’s parliamentary majority and what it means for smaller political parties

The end of coalition government: testing the limit of Timor-Leste’s parliamentary majority and what it means for smaller political parties

By: Mario F. da Costa Pinheiro
CNRT, the biggest political party in Timor-Leste, have unexpectedly cut ties with the Democratic Party (PD). This effectively ended the three-party coalition government, leaving CNRT and Frente Mudanca – a party with two seats in the National Parliament governing with a simple and fragile majority. 

In a series of calculated moves, starting with securing support from the party’s long-time and fiercest opposition, FRETILIN, with the inclusion of a number of political figures from the party in a recently-reshuffled government, and culminated with ditching PD, CNRT have ventured into an unchartered territory in Timor-Leste’s modern politics. 

This should not be a cause for concern nonetheless. Banking on the support of FRETILIN, and with Prime Minister Dr. Rui Araujo – a senior political figure from FRETILIN sitting at the apex of the current executive, CNRT are convinced that the current government will see out its terms in time for the upcoming 2017 election. Both CNRT and FRETILIN have 30 and 25 seats respectively in the National Parliament – 12 more than required to approve important legislations/decisions. Members of PD serving in some ministerial level positions have been informed of the cut, and pressures are mounting on the Prime Minister to decide on the fate of these ministers. 

The possibility of another change in governmental arrangement or in ministerial positions resulting from this recent fallout however, will likely raise some eyebrows. Critics argue that frequent changes in government are bad for policy, government and accountability. They are bad for policy because they interrupt with the flow in policy implementation, and to that end, accountability for policy implementation. Bad for government as they give out the impression that the government are too focus on themselves and not the people.

Interestingly, despite having been dumped, PD have also pledged their support to this government. This doesn’t mean a smooth sailing for CNRT however. As CNRT embark on a new beginning under this makeshift arrangement, they will likely see its decision-making power be greatly diminished. Without a clearly defined understanding between parties in the National Parliament on ways forward, many important decisions will most likely come at the behest of other political parties, particularly that of FRETILIN – something that is likely to trigger internal friction among political ranks within CNRT. 

This aside, the ease with which CNRT have ended the ties after securing FRETILIN’s support has raised question about CNRT’s treatment of a long-time ally. There is a sense of anger that CNRT have taken advantage and played PD to their own political gains. Such treatment is damaging to the party receiving the marching order. It leaves the impression that they were incapable and therefore, not worthy to continue on be part of the governing coalition – demoralizing the party in the process as well as threatening its future prospects. The spinoff could be loss of votes and seats in future election. 

Take Social Democrat Alliance of PSD – ASDT for example – an alliance making up the 2007 – 2012 coalition government which included PD and CNRT as the leading coalition party. After the president of PSD, Mr. Mario Carascallão’s resignation from his post as Vice Prime-Minister over disagreement with CNRT about certain governance priorities, relations between PSD and CNRT deteriorated despite PSD-ASDT remained in the then coalition government. Both PSD and ASDT in the end, didn’t even get a single seat for the first time in 2012 parliamentary election since election was held in Timor-Leste in 2001. 

While there is no clear indication to pin this to the crack in relations that PSD had with CNRT while in government, the correlation between the resulting loss of seats in the 2012 election with the perception of ‘out because of incompetence’ cannot be dismissed as lightly. Moreover, given that leading coalition party often take all the credit for government’s successes while leaving smaller parties fighting to convince the public of their roles and contribution in those successes, making this correlation as somewhat convincing. For example, the very popular policy of subsidy for the elderly and disabled people, one of the hallmarks of the 2007 – 2012 coalition government – reported to be a PSD-proposed policy, co-opted and championed by CNRT.

This situation that small parties find themselves in coalition government since 2007 can drive them out of Timor-Leste’s political scene in the long run. Out of 10 smaller parties (parties with 6 seats or less) in the National Parliament in 2002 only 1 (Frente Mudanca with 2 seats) remain.

In addition, ending the ties with PD in such a fashion critics added, may set a bad precedent for future coalition government. It breeds distrust towards bigger political parties, and is likely to make smaller political parties to be more guarded about entering into any future coalition government, which on a more optimistic note, could be a positive thing. 

With over 15 parties competing for 65 seats in every election, entertaining the idea of a single party winning more than 50% in 2017 parliamentary election is nearly impossible. The only party that has ever achieved that feat was FRETILIN in the first ever election in an independent Timor-Leste in 2001. Against this background, and having learned the hard way their importance as a potential kingmaker in the system, may just be the beginning for small parties to assert more of its influences in the delicate power-sharing arrangement process after each election. This of course, assuming that major competing parties are not in some kinds of power-sharing arrangement as they currently are after next election.  

So, what can we make of the recent event? A couple of things worth noting.  

First, CNRT’s decision to cut ties with PD marks an end to the longest coalition between political parties in an independent Timor-Leste.  Both PD and CNRT had been in coalition government since 2007 – a tragic end to an alliance long-thought to be an enduring one in the context of Timor-Leste’s multiparty political system. 

Second, the inclusion of FRETILIN’s senior political figures in the recently-reshuffled government is an indication that both parties have reached an understanding towards the 2017 election. While both parties have never openly declared that they have formed an alliance, the support pledged by FRETILIN after CNRT ended ties with PD has further strengthened speculation about FRETILIN-CNRT-led coalition government post 2017 election. With their imposing presence at the National Parliament at the moment with a total of 45 seats – 12 more than required for forming a government, the thought of this shadow coalition falling apart following next election seems unlikely. A number of reasons to support this. 

First, both parties have strong support base among the voters. FRETILIN, having lost its grip of its strongholds in the western part of Timor-Leste after the 2006 crisis in 2007 election, have bounced back quite strongly with 5 additional seats to its name in 2012 parliamentary election. It is poised to garner more support and votes in the next election with the inclusion of FRETILIN political figures in this current government. This is because voters may see the inclusion as a tacit admission by CNRT that FRETILIN have better pool of talent among political figures in its ranks to lead the government than those in CNRT or any other parties for that matter. 

Moreover, results from recent polling by local newspapers on the likeability and who the public in Dili thought would make a better prime minister among all the post-1975 generation leaders showed Dr. Rui outdid all contenders including current President of the Council of Minister Mr. Agio Pereira and CNRT’s secretary general Mr. Dioniso Babo by a big margin. As unreliable as these polling might have been, and as much as they were more about an individual leader than a preference for political party, they showed to some extent that perhaps, FRETILIN with a figure like Dr. Rui as a candidate for prime minister would stand a better chance of winning the next election than their new ally CNRT with Dr. Agio Pereira or Dr. Dionisio Babo as a candidate would. 

Similarly, CNRT with its charismatic leader Mr. Xanana Gusmao, having been credited for his success in bringing back stability following the 2006 crisis, and for having set the course for the country’s development based on the 2030 National Strategic Development Plan in the first 5 years of his reign and afterwards, have built even stronger support base among the voters since 2007 election.

However, given the party’s heavy reliant on the appeal of Mr. Xanana’s figure, and the fact that he has relinquished the top job in government – signaling imminent change in the party’s leadership, the party’s  vote is therefore, predicted to remain at the current level if not going down. 

Second, the paradigm shift in both parties’ outlooks on national interest. Both have previously viewed national interest from their respective parties’ telescopes, which have been great to the extent that it has created a balance between the government’s views of things VS the opposition’s views of things. However, the fact that such a balance has only created a dichotomy of “they VS us” environment at the expense of the nation’s growth and development, made the decision to join forces a more compelling move from their perspectives. 

Third, both parties are currently governing together. They are tasting firsthand the bitter-sweet of sharing power at both the executive and legislative levels. Thus far, there is no indication that gives out impression that the two cannot work together under one roof.

On the contrary, they seem to support each other in most governmental programs and issues. For instance, the bipartisan support on the recent approval of a relatively substantial budget for Oecusse enclave exclusive economic zone project or ZEESM – a project headed by former Prime Minister and Secretary General of FRETILIN DR. Mari Alkatiri, which came under heavy criticism including from the President, Taur Matan Ruak. 

Having said that, it is not impossible to see a different coalition taking shape next year, either before or after the election. One can never be too cynical. As they say “in politics there is no such thing as permanent allies, only interests are”, and unfortunately, PD can attest to that. 
The final takeaway from this recent fallout is that smaller political parties are increasingly becoming irrelevant when major competing parties have joined forces. As such, and with hardly any genuine opposition in the national parliament now, much of the check and balance roles hinges on the commitment and goodwill of individual Member of Parliament.

So, let’s look at the chances of smaller parties in 2017 election. 

With election fast approaching, new political parties spring up like mushrooms in rainy season. Even those with no clear direction are not shy away to show their teeth. Some new political parties, knowing that fighting the battle alone would be a futile exercise have pulled forces together and formed a block of three to four different parties.

PD, arguably, the third largest political party, were considered by many as a party with a bright prospect. However, with the recent passing of the party’s president and founder, DR. Fernando La Sama, it will likely see its support base dwindling. Historically, PD’s vote has been more or less steady, hovering around 40 to 50 thousand votes which translated to 8 seats in the National Parliament. In addition to the passing of Dr. Fernando La Sama, and if the assumption “out because of incompetence” were to factor in at all in the next election, its chances of retaining the number of seats or gaining more than it currently have is very slim. It nevertheless, remains to be seen how this party will fare in 2017 election.  

Frente Mudanca, the only other party in then three-party coalition government have a lot at stake in the upcoming election. Having its principal figure and two other senior figures replaced in the recently reshuffled government is very much damaging to the party’s support base and its prospect of getting reelected. With a meager size of support base, and a lack of publicity around its roles and contribution in the coalition government so far, it is likely to lose a seat if not all the 2 seats.

A new political party to watch out for is PLP or popular liberation party – a party reported to be headed by the current President of Republic, Taur Matan Ruak. Much like FRETILIN and CNRT, the party’s support base are reported to be coming from a different array of backgrounds. From war veterans, groups with links to past resistance movements, former activists and others. It is nevertheless, too early to predict whether it will make a major breakthrough in the next election. 

In general, most political parties weren’t so fortunate in the past election, some were more unfortunate than others. For example, PSD-ASDT with 11 seats in 2007 election, but gained not even a single seat in 2012 election. PUN (Partido Unidade Nacional or National Unity Party) with its intelligent and outspoken president Fernanda Borges with 3 seats in 2007, went through the same fate in 2012 election. It remains uncertain whether they will return to redeem their places among the elites in 2017 election. 

Two political parties that saw an upward trend in 2012 election were FRETILIN and CNRT. CNRT from 18 seats in 2007 to 30 seats in 2012 and FRETILIN with 21 in 2007 to 25 seats in 2012 election. This however, should never be taken for granted.

Now, as a post-PD government is underway, how much change it is likely to make to the lives of the people is far from certain. What is certain however, is that a new page in Timor-Leste’s politics has been turned and it’s full of intrigues and surprises. 

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