Timor-Leste prime minister designated

As expected after the recent parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste, former President Xanana Gusmao will become the new prime minister. Current President (and former prime minister) Jose Ramos Horta, also elected earlier this year, has asked Gusmao to form a government.

BBC reports:

But Mr Gusmao’s main rival, Fretilin party leader Mari Alkatiri, denounced the decision as illegal. […]

Fretilin, under Mr Alkatiri, won 21 seats in the election, while Mr Gusmao’s new National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party won only 18 seats.

Fretilin argued that it should form the government because it won most votes, but then the CNRT party formed an alliance with smaller parties, giving it 37 seats in the 65-member legislature.

So, does Fretlin have a constitutionally legitimate argument? In a word, no. The constitution is pretty clear in not giving any first-mover advantage in government-formation to the largest party. It also does not give the President any discretion. Section 85 of the Constitution deals with the President’s powers:

It is exclusively incumbent upon the President of the Republic:

d) To appoint and swear in the Prime Minister designated by the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the National Parliament;

In case that is not clear enough, Section 106, which deals with the competencies of the Government states:

1. The Prime Minister shall be designated by the political party or alliance of political parties with parliamentary majority and shall be appointed by the President of the Republic, after consultation with the political parties sitting in the National Parliament.

2. The remaining members of the Government shall be appointed by the President of the Republic following proposal by the Prime Minister.

Other sections of the constitution are equally clear that the parliamentary majority is sovereign on most matters (e.g. an absolute majority may override a presidential veto, and only the parliamentary majority may remove a cabinet). The constitution clearly established Timor-Leste as a premier-presidential system with strong privileges for whoever can control a majority of the parliament.

If the largest party is not part of the majority coalition, it gets to form the opposition–and that would be the case even if it were the president’s party that was the largest. In this case, of course, the majority coalition includes the ex-president’s party, which he formed specifically as a vehicle to propel him into the more powerful premiership (as president, he served as a nonpartisan).

Constitutionally, there can be no doubt of the right of Ramos Horta and Xanana to form a cabinet that excludes Fretilin. Nonetheless, recognizing the danger Fretilin’s capacity for violence could pose to political stability, Ramos Horta had attempted to forge a grand coalition, BBC reports.

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Timor-Leste results almost complete

With results from last Saturday’s parliamentary election in Timor-Leste (East Timor) nearly complete, the former ruling party, Fretilin, has seen its support slip badly from the commanding position it enjoyed as the former Indonesian-occupied country gained independence. With 29% of the vote, it has a plurality over the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), the party formed by the country’s first (and now ex-) president Xanana Gusmao, which won about 24%. The next largest parties were the ASDT-PSD (16%) and the Democratic Party (11%). Three other parties won between 3% (the minimum required to win a seat) and 4.5%.

There was never much doubt that Fretilin would emerge as the largest party, as it is the party with the countrywide organizational apparatus. However, 29% is a pretty small total and its lead turned out to be quite narrow.

I have not seen seat totals, but with 52 of the 65 seats elected by nationwide proportional representation, the seats breakdown will closely reflect that of the votes. (Previously there also were 13 seats elected in single-seat districts by plurality, but as discussed in the comments, it appears that these seats no longer exist.)

In 2001, Fretelin had won 57% of the vote. There are not many (or any?) other examples of young countries in which the “national liberation movement” has seen its support plummet so far and so fast. While the divisions within the country’s political elite do not necessarily augur well for smooth power-sharing, the end of Fretilin dominance should be hailed as a promising sign in the development of East Timorese democracy. This is one young country that will not degenerate into a one-party state.

The formation of an alternative center of political power in Timor-Leste was aided by the constitutional design, which included not only proportional representation for the parliament, but also a separately elected presidency. The 2002 presidential election was won (with over 82% of the vote) by Gusmao, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Indonesian resistance, but one who had left Fretilin in the 1980s. He ran as an independent, and thus served as a popular and constitutional counterweight to Fretilin’s dominance of the parliament.

In the country’s second presidential election, held just this April, another prominent nationalist (and ex-Fretilin) leader, Jose Ramos Horta, was elected president. Serving as as Prime Minister at the time, Ramos Horta’s 21.8% was good enough for second place to the Fretilin candidate’s 27.9% in the initial round; he won the runoff easily (around 70%). The results of these two elections show that political pluralism is quite real in Timor-Leste.

The CNRT is not much of a party. As noted in the The Economist in the June 21 issue:

Members of [Gusmao’s] brand-new party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT), are feverishly drafting a party constitution and programme. Mr Gusmão may well win even without them. The CNRT’s rallies attract huge crowds. But its campaign relies solely on Mr Gusmão’s charisma and on berating Fretilin for incompetence and corruption. The CNRT, whose name recalls the resistance coalition Mr Gusmão led in the late 1990s, does not even try to offer policies.

The CNRT is thus a classic example of a “presidentialized party” in that it is formed not be a programmatic vehicle but rather as a means to gain legislative representation to bolster the president. However, in this case, it is, oddly enough, the former, but still popular, president, rather than the incumbent, who has made the party one of the country’s largest.* The presidency is quite weak. So, in a sense, the CNRT allows for a second Gusmao term, at the head of the more powerful institutions of government, while Ramos Horta will hold the symbolic head-of-state role for which the Nobel Prize winner (1996) and UN Secretary General-aspirant is probably most suited.

Fretilin has rejected the president’s call for a grand coalition with the CNRT. However, the electoral result and the minimal constitutional powers held by the presidency–which include nominating as prime minister the party leader the president believes best able to form a stable majority–will allow the CNRT and other parties to form a coalition cabinet. (The fourth-place PD is the party of Ferdinand de Araujo, whose 19% of the vote in April’s presidential election almost kept Ramos Horta out of the runoff.**)

From within my profession of political science, there are many voices that decry the selection of presidential or even semi-presidential models for young democracies. However, the Timor-Leste experience suggests that the mere existence of separate presidential elections, even for a relatively weak office, can be beneficial for creating an alternative pole of electoral competition for a leader who lacks the kind of on-the-ground organizational prowess that a “national liberation movement” can claim.

Democracy and development in a country as ravaged by occupation and war as Timor-Leste will always be difficult, but the completion of this second cycle of elections has given the country a chance.

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* This “ex-presidentialization” was no doubt facilitated by the provision in the electoral law (Article 39) that provides that the ballot shall show the photo of the candidate ranked at the no. 1 position on the national list. Presumably that was Gusmao for the CNRT. (The text of the is available from IFES; strangely, I do not see any provision in the law on those thirteen single-seat districts.

** The ASDT-PSD list, which placed third in the parliamentary elections includes the party that ran Lucia Lobato as its presidential candidate. She won 8.9% of the vote then, placing fifth. (Independent Francisco Xavier do Amaral was fourth with 14.4%. I wonder which lists his supporters tended to favor. From the aggregate results, it would appear that they were somewhat likely to back the ASDT-PSD, given that the two leading parties did not perform that differently in the two elections (if we take Ramos Horta to be the de-facto CNRT candidate, even though he ran as an independent).

When is MMM not MMM?

Is any electoral system in which a tier of single-seat districts (SSDs) is accompanied by a noncompensatory tier of list PR a “mixed-member majoritarian” (MMM) system? This question arises in advance of the 30 June legislative election of East Timor. But that is actually getting ahead of the story…

I have just opened the latest book by Benjamin Reilly of ANU’s Center for Democratic Institutions: Democracy and Diversity: Political Engineering in the Asia-Pacific (Oxford, 2006). I will be reviewing this book for Democratization. I am eager to read it, and the approach and organization look idea for my Institutional Engineering course in future years.

Of course, my first step was to do what every academic does, and turn straight to the bibliography and index to check the citations to and discussion of my work. On p. 111, Professor Reilly accuses me of making little sense. And you know what, he is right: some systems that I would label as MMM should not be so identified.

In East Timor’s 2001 election, there were 75 seats allocated by closed-list PR and 13 single-seat districts allocated by plurality. Yes, thirteen of 88, or 14.8% of seats are allocated by the “majoritarian” nominal-tier. For 2007, the 13 SSDs will be the same, but the total number of seats has been cut to 65, making the nominal tier only slightly larger in percentage terms (20%).

Of course, in branding the noncompensatory (parallel) mixed-member systems as MMM, I have always had in mind systems in which the nominal tier was either “close to” half or well over half the total number of seats.* In such combinations, the list-PR allocation is unlikely to prevent any party that can emerge from the nominal tier over-represented (perhaps substantially) from retaining over-representation. Of course, such a party’s over-representation can only be reduced by the addition of the PR seats. Nonetheless, any party in a position to be over-represented in the nominal tier will also obtain a large (and approximately proportional) share of the list-tier seats. It thus will retain some degree of over-representation far and away beyond what it would have with any compensatory mixed-member system (MMP), even one with a relatively small PR tier and/or small magnitudes in that tier. Hence, “MMM.”

But what if the nominal tier is very small? Of course, the system is not going to be very majoritarian–even if one party pretty much sweeps the nominal tier. Reilly suggests calling the system MMM only if a majority of the seats are allocated in the nominal tier. I think that might be going too far, and not only because the label, MMM, certainly should be retained for parallel systems with a 50:50 split between the tiers. Even Hungary, with around 54% of its seats in the list tier and a mechanism for partial compensation is quite majoritarian in its impact (and thus should not be called MMP, as it is in some works, including other works of which Reilly is a co-author). But I can certainly agree that 15% nominal tier and noncompensatory allocation do not add up to a majoritarian system.

Classification aside, why would anyone want a noncompensatory MM system with such a small nominal tier? I can see the logic behind a very small list tier (as in South Korea, for example). Such a system provides some minimal degree of representation to parties that are small or have dispersed voter support and reduces the risk of overwhelming single-party majorities while still retaining a mostly “majoritarian” and nominal logic to the overall system. But why do the reverse, and have a mostly PR system with a small tier of SSDs that one party might sweep, as Fretelin almost did in 2001*? The potential for one party to dominate the nominal tier increases the actual majoritarianism of the system only if the largest party was very short of a majority of list seats (and therefore not in need of much a bonus to become a majority party) and, owing to the large geographic extent of the districts (relative to country size), there certainly is not much local representation at work. It is an odd combination, whatever we might call it.

UPDATE: Apparently, the SSDs were removed from the system for the 2007 election.

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* The concept of MMM was debuted on p. 13 of Matthew Soberg Shugart and Martin P. Wattenberg, Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (Oxford, 2001). The definition is not much different from what is written here, and we make no mention of a minimum percentage of seats in the nominal tier (or, for that matter, of the list tier of an MMP system).

** Fretilin won 12 of the 13. When added to its almost perfectly proportional share of the 75 list seats, this gave the party 62.5% of the total seats on 57.4% of the list votes for a fairly modest degree of over-representation (advantage ratio of 1.08).

Presidential election in East Timor

Polls are open for the first round of the presidential election in East Timor (Timor-Leste).

East Timor’s presidency is not very powerful. The system is quite similar in its formal powers to that of the country whose colony the country once was, Portugal. It is premier-presidential, which is to say that the more powerful executive posts are those of the premier and cabinet who must maintain confidence of the parliamentary majority. Even within this category, the system clearly leans parliamentary. The presidency may be more than a figurehead, but not much.

Since independence, the presidency has been held by one of the country’s most popular leaders of the independence struggle, Xanana Gusmao, who is not running in this election. Gusmao governed as an independent, facing a parliament–and thus premiers–controlled by the country’s only major political party to date, Fretilin, the former guerrilla movement that led the fight against the Indonesian occupation. (Indonesia’s military invaded the territory almost immediately after Portugal withdrew in 1975.)

East Timor is one of those countries that perhaps could benefit from a more powerful presidency. The Fretilin has been so dominant in parliament that there is hardly any effective opposition in that body. Thus the political opposition has been led by the popular president, but he has little power to be effective in resisting the government and parliament. And, with the president being personally popular, most voters presumably do not understand why he is unable to be more effective at representing them.

In this election, it is not clear who might win, with eight candidates, three of them given decent chances (see the BBC link above). One of the leading candidates is the current Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of Fretilin. He is now following in the footsteps of Xanana, running as the anti-Fretilin independent. Meanwhile, Xanana is positioning himself to take up the post of Prime Minister if his supporters can do well in parliamentary elections later this year.

So, this year’s elections could see a game of musical chairs, with the current incumbents exchanging positions. If Xanana can break the dominance of Fretilin, East Timor might even have effective two-party or multiparty politics in parliament, even while it would continue to have an independent politician heading a weak presidency.

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Thanks to Alan for the prompt to post this and to Nicole A. (student in my Institutional Engineering course last year), whose paper and presentation are the source of much of what I know about East Timorese institutions. Neither Alan nor Nicole can be held responsible for any misunderstandings the above may demonstrate on my part.