09 August, 2007

Semi-presidential politics in Timor-Leste

One great thing about the reading around my thesis is that I have got to read about loads of countries I previously did not too much about. This arises because in trying to form a comparative framework in which to place a study of semi-presidentialism in Palestine I need to look at other countries with a similar kind of institutional setup. I may well pad out this blog for years to come with fascinating facts about semi-presidential countries from around the world.

Today it is the turn of Timor-Leste, as the former Portuguese colony of East Timor know prefers to be called. While the country was ruled by Indonesia the place became something of a cause cel├Ębre, partly resulting from the thuggish and near genocidal rule of the Indonesian military. With independence, the country largely dropped off the world's radar, or at least it did off mine, apart from a sense that the country's post-independence politics had all proved a bit tawdry and disappointing.

My very limited reading about Timor-Leste suggests some interesting things about the country's politics. Indonesian rule was resisted both militarily and politically, as is often the case in occupied countries. What one sometimes see in such situations is that if the national struggle is ever successfully concluded then a tension erupts between the political and military side of the nationalist movement. Analysis tends to depict the political side of any ensuing conflict as the good guys, in that they are the ones who will do politics (run for elections, form governments, make the kind of political compromises that are needed in a democratic society). In contrast, the militarists are seen as the bad guys – while they may have proved useful during the freedom struggle, the kind of mindset honed by warfare is inimical to democratic politics. Militarists are seen as hostile to compromise and having a belief in discipline and hierarchy that meshes badly with the give and take of pluralist politics. That, as I say, is the default position on such matters, or maybe I am just generalising too much from the history of my own country.

Timor-Leste seems to run counter to that default position. There, the political wing of the national struggle seems to have produced a party (FRETILIN) with a closed, illiberal, and crypto-authoritarian outlook, one that sees itself as the sole legitimate representation of Timor-Leste's people. In contrast, the military wing of the movement produced in Xanana Gusmao a leader who seems far keener to reach out across Timor-Lestean society and to respect democratic norms; during the Indonesian occupation he transformed the guerrilla army from being a FRETILIN militia to being a more broadly based outside the party's control. It is maybe easy to see why FRETILIN turned out the way it did – the party early on adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology that lends itself to vanguardism, and the party cultivated close links to authoritarian leftist regimes in Africa from whom shady ideas could be picked up. Gusmao's non-bonapartism is maybe a bit harder to explain, but I will leave that to people who know more about the country to engage with.

As a semi-presidential regime, Timor-Leste has also bucked the trend. In these kind of countries, particularly when they are newly democratising, there is a tendency to see the president as embodying authoritarian tendencies, with the parliamentary side of things serving as a democratic brake. After Timor-Leste's first presidential and parliamentary elections the country was pitched into cohabitation, with the parliament choosing a prime minister hostile to the president. However, it was nasty, authoritarian FRETILIN who picked the prime minister, while President Gusmao ended up serving as a brake on their crypto-authoritarianism. The country's divisions, reflected by the split executive, saw the country becoming increasingly destabilised, with a series of riots and army mutinies leading to the smashing up of any infrastructure the Indonesians had not wrecked before they pulled out. Elections this year saw Gusmao ally (and Nobel laureate) Jose Ramos-Horta elected to the presidency while Gusmao has just become prime minister at the head of a coalition government. Maybe this united executive will be able to stabilise the country's politics, though the pro-FRETILIN riots that greeted Gusmao's appointment suggest they have a way to go yet. Still, a coalition government, even one that excludes FRETILIN, is probably a good thing for the country at this point, certainly better than the FRETILIN dominated parliament it had before the elections.

One caveat on all this – I have actually read so little on Timor-Leste that I could be passing on a very skewed impression of the country's politics. It is only really one scholarly article* from which I picked up the idea of Gusmao-good FRETILIN-bad position, so if that was written by someone with tendentious views then I could be seriously misleading you. However, the fact that Mara Alkatiri, the FRETILIN leader, has denounced the current government as illegal, despite its parliamentary majority, suggests that his party's commitment to democratic electoral outcomes is a bit tenuous.

*Shoesmith, Dennis (2003) 'Timor-Leste: divided leadership in a semi-presidential system' Asian Survey, 43 (2), 231-252


Nicholas Whyte said...

Do Cyprus and the former Soviet states count as semi-presidential in this typology?

Rhunzzz said...

I believe I have read certain journal articles which further seek to refine the rather murky concept of semi-presidentialism. Some authors (Shugart and Carey I think, it's all on www.jstor.org) have distinguished "premier-presidentialism" and "president-parliamentarism".

The former refers to a system which operates essentially like a parliamentary republic, but with an elected president who acts as a constitutional check upon Parliament and whose role is mostly ceremonial. The latter refers to a system that looks much like the French Fifth Republic - an elected president with power to actually direct government policy, sharing power with a parliamentary government.

The PA looks like it was built as a president-parliamentary system. What does Timor-Leste look like?

ian said...

Blogger does not really encourage comment discussion, so I will come back to you both presently in a new post.

The short answer to Nicholas' question: it depends who you talk to.

The short answer to rhunzzz's: Timor-Leste is premier-presidential. As probably was the PA.

John said...

Suggest you try multi-lingual east-timor-studies list as your source for Timor-Leste.
Heavy traffic, excellent Links
section. Go to
and hit Join This Group.

ian said...

Thanks for the list... I may check it out after I have submitted if I am still mad for Timor Leste.