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East Timor dissolves Parliament in effort to solve political standoff

Sydney Morning Herald - January 26, 2018

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok East Timor's Parliament has been dissolved and fresh elections called to end a political impasse that has paralysed Australia's north-western neighbour for months.

President Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres announced the dissolving of Parliament on Friday, saying "only the people can help us out of the impasse".

"All go and vote again to strengthen our democracy," he said, stressing that consensus must take priority over individual interests.

The decision forces Guterres' political ally and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to go back to the polls only months after his Fretilin, the former revolutionary party, narrowly won the most seats in July.

Under the country's constitution Alkatiri remains caretaker prime minister until the election.

A three-party opposition alliance had refused to pass the Fretilin-led government's budgets and programs, forcing Guterres to intervene.

The President could have invited the second largest party the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction led by former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao to form government, with two other smaller opposition parties.

But Alkatiri, who claimed in December opposition parties were attempting to stage a coup, wanted Parliament dissolved and fresh elections called.

Voters are expected to go to the polls in the staunchly Catholic nation after Easter.

At the centre of the fractious standoff are Alkatiri and Gusmao, the country's two most dominating political figures who have had bitter fallings out in the past.

Gusmao, a wily political operator and hero of East Timor's struggle for independence, has wielded the most power behind the scenes while leading his country's negotiations with Australia on a Timor Sea maritime boundary and sharing arrangements for the $50 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field.

As political tensions have risen Gusmao has stayed out of the country, prompting many Timorese to ask what role he would play in any political resolution. Analysts say without his approval of a new government political uncertainty will remain.

Professor Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, told Fairfax Media there was a strong chance the three opposition parties would form a pre-election coalition which would make them a formidable electoral force.

"Fretilin has promised to take its government program directly to the people in a campaign after it failed to gain parliamentary support," he said.

Leach said despite the political ructions East Timorese society remained calm.

"That said the 2018 parliamentary elections could prove a far tenser affair than the election last year which occurred in the wake of an unprecedented era of major party cooperation," he said.

"In previous elections cross-party agreements have sought to minimise inflammatory campaigning and many people in Timor-Leste [East Timor] hope to see the same again."

The former Indonesian-occupied territory hasn't had a functioning administration for months and the coffers of state agencies were starting to run dry with the government's failure to pass a budget.

There have been no street protests unlike 2006 when mobs rioted across Dili, prompting intervention by Australian troops.

Many social media users expressed relief at the decision to return to the polls.

In recent days, Guterres met with political party leaders and other influential figures, including those from the Catholic church.

The political uncertainty could delay ratification of the landmark agreement to develop billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

East Timor and Australia are set to sign in March a treaty on maritime boundary that has been negotiated under UN supervision at The Hague, ending years of bitter disagreement that strained ties between the neighbours.

Any new government in Dili will have to ratify it. Details of the agreement have not been made public.

Gusmao has demanded that any development of Greater Sunrise involve an offshore LNG processing plant on in a remote part of East Timor, which he envisages becoming an industrial hub.

But the field's joint-venture partners, led by Woodside Petroleum, say bringing the gas ashore to East Timor across a deep undersea trench is uneconomic.

They want to exploit the reserves through a floating LNG platform or pipe the gas to an existing LNG plant in Darwin.

Gusmao is tipped to head a new authority to oversee the Greater Sunrise development, which is critical to East Timor's future as existing joint gas fields with Australia run dry in the next few years.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/east-timor-dissolves-parliament-in-effort-to-solve-political-standoff-20180126-p4yyx3.html.

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