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East Timor: Gusmao Steps Back

13 Feb 2015
By Sebastian McLellan
Image Credit: Flickr (RTP) Creative Commons.

East Timor’s leadership change signifies a move toward consensus-based governance.

Opposition member and former health minister Rui Araujo will become the next prime minister of East Timor after Xanana Gusmao tendered his resignation last Thursday, 5 February. President Taur Matan Ruak this week accepted Gusmao’s resignation and approved Araujo’s nomination by the governing CNRT party. Araujo will be inaugurated as prime minister on Monday afternoon. Gusmao will remain in government as the minister of planning and strategic investment. Once sworn-in, Araujo and his ministers will form the sixth Constitutional Government of East Timor.

Araujo is an experienced politician, having served as minister of health in the first three constitutional governments with a stint as vice prime minister in 2007. He is a member of the opposition Fretilin party and currently works in the Finance Ministry as a corporate policy adviser.

The leadership change is not a surprise; Gusmao has long hinted at his desire to step down. He has served in office ever since East Timorese independence in 2002, first as president (2002-2007) and more recently as prime minister (2007-2015). Gusmao has indicated that he wishes to hand power down to a new generation of leaders. The people, too, appear to desire “new leadership and fresh ideas” to address political, economic and social challenges.

Gusmao’s selection of an opposition member as prime ministerial candidate is a significant political gesture. It represents a move towards more consensus-based governance and is a show of unity between the major political parties. Gusmao has previously conveyed his desire to see a more inclusive government with representation across the political spectrum. Some analysts contend that this restructure is also an attempt to oust corrupt figures from the Council of Ministers. A key shift will be a reduction in “the size of the government to create a smaller, more efficient and effective executive”. The new government will include only 38 positions, compared with 55 under Gusmao. It also promises to include new faces, and grant opportunities to younger leaders.

East Timor’s Political System

East Timor is a Semi-Presidentialist Republic led by a president – as head of state – and prime minister as head of government. The president is elected directly by the people. The prime minister is the leader of the party with a majority in the unicameral parliament, who must be officially appointed by the president. East Timor has a multi-party system in which candidates are elected by popular vote. Both the president and government hold office for 5-year terms.

The constitution states that the resignation of the prime minister also mandates the “dismissal of the government” (Art. 112, 1b). The president then has the responsibility to appoint a new prime minister through consultation with parliament (Art. 106, 1). The new prime minister proposes his or her Council of Ministers to be approved and appointed by the president (Art. 106, 2). Araujo has selected all members of his government and President Taur Matan Ruak has accepted the list. Araujo is now only awaiting his official appointment before taking over as head of government.

Reactions to the Appointment

These political changes have been received in most circles as a positive step for East Timor. Gregory Poling of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies contends that this handover of power could be one of Gusmao’s “best legacies”. He sees East Timor’s problems as stemming from the political interests of the older political elite and stresses that this transition to more youthful leadership could set “an invaluable precedent” for future government transitions. Deakin University’s East Timor expert Damien Kingsbury describes Araujo as a highly popular unifying figure whose appointment allows for a “national unity government”. The change is likely to start a “new period of cross-party cooperation” according to Cillian Nolan of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. However other commentators urge caution, raising the possibility of Gusmao retaining significant influence on prime ministerial decision-making through his ministerial position. There is nothing to substantiate this claim; it will only emerge in coming weeks how Gusmao intends to act.

The leadership change will not solve East Timor’s problems overnight, but it is a positive step towards quelling political tension and introducing fresh thinking into government. Xanana Gusmao was a key figure in the independence struggle and has guided the country through the initial challenges of statehood.

Sebastian McLellan studies a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, and he is currently a research intern at the AIIA National Office. He can be reached at sebastian.mclellan62@gmail.comThis article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. AIIA Victoria conducted a study tour to East Timor in 2010. The report can be found here.