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Timor-Leste’s government teeters on the edge

DILI (UCAN): Timor-Leste lurched into a constitutional crisis after the minority government of prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, failed to pass key legislation, including a fresh budget, in the week before Christmas.
Asia’s most Catholic nation and youngest democracy now faces the prospect of a new government, or a second election inside nine months, as the country’s parliament has been in gridlock since the 22 July 2017 election failed to deliver a workable majority (Sunday Examiner, 24 September 2017).
Alkatiri’s Fretlin Party, which won the most seats in the election, and its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, hold 30 seats in the 65-seat legislature and must rely on the support of opposition members of parliament to pass legislation.
During a televised press conference from Singapore on  November 19, Timor-Leste’s opposition leaders assured the public that they were prepared to take over the leadership.
Taking part in the broadcast were the country’s elder statesperson and former president and prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, who was accompanied by Taur Matan Ruak, president of Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and Jose do Santos Naimori of Khunto Party.
“If the president gives us the responsibility to lead the country out of the current crisis, we will take it,” Gusmao said.
Alkatiri has refused to convene parliament and claimed the opposition was trying to stage a coup, despite the fact that it is the president who swears in the legislature.
Australian academic, Damien Kingsbury, has described it as a “government of national disunity” and Alkatiri as having a “controlling political style.”
Gusmao has been negotiating a new treaty with Australia over the spoils of the estimated $US39 billion ($311 billion) maritime oil and gas reserves in the so-called Greater Sunrise deposit in the waters of the East Timor Sea.
An announcement on December 26 stated that Australia and East Timor would sign the treaty setting maritime boundaries this year, likely in March as mandated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but it needs the ratification of parliament which, by then, may be dissolved. 
Gusmao has not been in the country and it is widely thought that his presence is needed for the political impasse to either be resolved or the government dissolved.
Manuel Tilman, a lawyer from East Timor, said that a political crisis would be precipitated if the government’s programme is rejected by parliament again.
“This is in line with Article 112 of the constitution. If the government’s programme is denied for a second consecutive time the government will fall,” Tilman explained.
According to Tilman, Guterres would have to consider how to form a new government if the current one is disbanded.
Options include offering it to Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction which garnered the second largest amount of votes in the July 22 polls, or forming a national unity government.
If the dialogue between the political elites fails, the president can dissolve the national parliament as early as January 22, he said.
“The election could be in April 2018, but since that date coincides with Lent and Easter in the deeply Catholic nation, it is most likely to be in May 2018,” he added.
What happens next is now very much with the president, Francisco Guterres, a colleague of Alkatiri.
“I will make decisions according to the constitution so as not to burden the people and there will be no blood or injury, let alone deaths,” Guterres said on December 4. 
In the event of early elections in May, Timor-Leste could experience a financial crisis because the state budget has not been approved. 

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