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A new era of political coalitions in Timor-Leste?
The Diplomat - April 19, 2018
The path to the upcoming general election for Timor-Leste has been a rather complicated and event-filled one. Last year, Fretilin secured just a little over 1,000 more votes than the second placed party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). As such, Fretilin won 23 seats in parliament and the CNRT 22 seats. But even when backed with the seven seats of the Democratic Party (PD), Fretilin could only form a minority government.
Nonetheless, in September, recently elected President Francisco Guterres (a leading member of Fretilin) allowed the minority government to try to form a mandate. Soon afterwards, three opposition parties – the CNRT, the People's Liberation Party (PLP), and the youth-aligned KHUNTO – formed a coalition, the Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP). With a majority of parliamentarians (35), the AMP twice blocked the minority government's program, meaning that the president had no choice but to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections.
Amid the campaigning that has commenced ahead of polls, however, it has been interesting to watch the shape of coalitions being formed. When the Court of Appeals in March released the official list of political parties that will compete next month, most had entered into informal coalitions.
This seemingly minor point has significance because Timor-Leste has no great history of electoral alliances. At last year's election, for example, ballots were cast for 20 different parties. There was only one alliance, the Popular Unity Bloc (BUP) composed of three small parties, which secured just 0.9 percent of the vote.
By contrast, in the upcoming election, there will be four coalitions, and only four parties will compete outside of an alliance, including Fretilin and the PD. The other two – the Hope of the Fatherland Party (PEP) and the Republican Party (PR) – won just a few thousand votes each last year.
One of the four coalitions, the most important will be the Change for Progress Alliance (AMP), the continuation of the CNRT-PLP-KHUNTO coalition that was formed in parliamentary opposition last year. Collectively, the three parties won 46.5 percent of the vote last year and are expected to poll well next month. And if they again win 35 seats this year, they will be able to form a majority government.
Another coalition is the Democratic Development Front (FDD), which is composed of United Party for Development and Democracy (PUDD), the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), and Frenti-Mudanca, a former Fretilin breakaway faction. When combined, these parties won 6.4 percent of the vote at last year's general election.
Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Movement (MSD) combines four left-wing parties that, together, won 2.4 percent of the vote last year. Last is the National Development Movement (MDN), an alliance of four small parties, that, when combined, won roughly 1.4 percent of the vote last year.
A recent article by Michael Leach, a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University of Technology, pointed out that some of Timor-Leste's smaller parties, most of which failed to win the 4 percent threshold needed to gain a seat in parliament, have formed coalitions in the hope of attaining some power. Indeed, if the FDD alliance parties this year attain a similar number of votes as last year, they would win a handful of seats in parliament.
In terms of actually having an impact on the next election, Leach writes that the coalitions will likely be a detriment to Fretilin. First, they could steal a handful of seats that might make the difference between a minority and majority government. Indeed, Leach thinks that it is likely that Fretilin will "need to exceed its 2017 vote share" in this year's ballot if it is to win power. Second, it is probable that some of the coalitions, if they win seats, would be more supportive of the AMP than Fretilin. The left-wing MSD alliance, for example, would probably support the AMP's agenda of more investment in education and social welfare. Potentially, a smaller coalition could enter into an alliance with the AMP after the election in order to form a majority government.
So might the PD. So far, there are indications that the PD, which joined Fretilin in its minority government, will continue cooperating with the major party while campaigning. But some political observers have detected hesitation within the PD ranks over whether to again back Fretilin or, instead, opt for the AMP coalition.
But the importance of the new coalition is more than just how it will rattle the big players. Before last year's general election, Fretilin and the CNRT together held power for several years as part of the "national unity" government, an attempt in 2015 to put the two historic parties' differences and antagonisms aside for the sake of stability. Some analysts thought this unity would continue after last year's election, though that wasn't the case.
Following this, a number of political observers grew gloomy over Timor-Leste's democracy. Many warned that it could precipitate unhealthy partisanship and create instability; some said it could potentially lead to the division and violence seen in 2006. From Leach's recent article, one can detect slight cynicism about the events of last year. He wrote:
"In the wash-up from 2017, two things are clear. The era of national unity is effectively over, and this election campaign will reflect a far more polarized environment. Timor-Leste also missed the opportunity of the 'double handover,' the two changes in power that are often seen as a key indicator of democratic consolidation."
I have welcomed a return of some partisanship to Timor-Leste. After all, the "national unity" government effectively did away with any political opposition, which forced then-President Tuar Matan Ruak to go beyond his constitutional duties in holding the government to account, and later saw him co-found the PLP.
But the prospective new era of political alliances is arguably a sign of greater accord among some political parties, though in a way that will make sure that disparate views and opinions are not sidelined for the sake of "stability" or "consensus politics." Indeed, most of the smaller parties (some of which are simply vehicles for individual politicians) will now have to compromise and debate with their alliance partners, which can only be a good thing. And, if they are successful, we could see new politicians and parties enter parliament. Recent elections have seen the number of parties in parliament restricted to just a handful, compared to 12 parties winning seats in 2001 and seven in 2007 (the 2007 election saw two small alliances win seats).
As for the "double handover" of power, this could have been a problem for East Timorese democracy. But the solution that was found ought to be seen as a victory for the country's democratic future. It didn't succumb to violence, nor did the minority Fretilin-PD government cling onto power unconstitutionally. Indeed, last year's parliamentary impasse is now to be solved democratically through fresh elections next month.
As a result, Timor-Leste can stand proud as arguably the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia – even more so as the rest of the region now succumbs to even greater autocracy and tyranny.