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Timor-Leste: the role of the president

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The various contenders for Timor-Leste’s presidency in the 17 March election have begun to try to persuade the voting public why they should be elected as president. A number of candidates have said that, if elected, they will institute particular changes or reforms. These promises appear, however, to misunderstand the role of Timor-Leste’s president.
In short, the role of the president in Timor-Leste is, with few exceptions, a ceremonial one. Apart from a few carefully circumscribed areas, Timor-Leste’s president does not have an executive function.
Presidential candidates who announce that, if elected, they will institute particular changes therefore appear to be unaware of the constitutional role of the president. It is either that, or that they wish to change the constitution and give Timor-Leste a different type of political system.
In part, the confusion over the role of the president arises as a result of unofficial terminology around Timor-Leste’s political system. The system is commonly referred to as ‘semi-presidential’, which implies shared executive functions between the prime minister and the president. In short, Timor-Leste does not have a semi-presidential system.
The confusion over terminology comes from the Portuguese political system, on which Timor-Leste’s constitution is closely modelled. Portugal had a semi-presidential system but, since major constitutional changes in 1982, it is no longer such, even though it is sometimes still referred to in this way.
In most semi-presidential systems, such as that of France, Russia and Finland, the president oversees foreign and sometimes other areas of policy, but does not usually intervene in domestic affairs, which are the responsibility of the prime minister. In Timor-Leste, such authority devolves to minsters appointed by the prime minister.
The status of Timor-Leste as a parliamentary republic derives from Section 92 of the constitution which states that Timor-Leste’s parliament as ‘the organ of sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste that represents all Timorese citizens and is vested with legislative supervisory and political decision making powers’ (my italics: Portuguese: ‘O Parlamento Nacional é o órgão de soberania da República Democrática de Timor-Leste, representativo de todos os cidadãos timorenses com poderes legislativos, de fiscalização e de decisão política’).
This explicit reference to parliamentary ‘sovereignty’ and ‘legislative supervisory and political decision making powers’, along with a range of other Constitutional references, makes clear that Timor-Leste has a parliamentary, not a semi-presidential, political system.
The role of the president, then, is left to deciding who can carry a majority vote in parliament, declaring amnesties and promulgating or, exceptional circumstances, vetoing, legislation.
Some observers have noted that because Timor-Leste’s President has the power of veto over legislation, this implies an executive or discretionary decision making function and thus qualifies Timor-Leste as a semi-presidential system. In that the President has the power of veto over legislation, this is ordinarily a ceremonial or ‘rubber stamp’ function, in which the head of state approves legislation passed by the government.
If the President is unsure about legislation, he or she can refer that legislation for constitutional review, requiring it to be clarified by the senior judiciary competent to adjudicate on constitutional matters. This is noted in the constitution and is consistent with most other parliamentary democracies, including that of Portugal.
That is, other than in highly unusual circumstances, the qualification of legislation devolves not, functionally, to the President but to the constitutional or equivalent court.
So, when presidential candidates talk about the changes they will implement if elected, they are talking beyond the constitutional powers of the president. Perhaps this makes sense to a voting public whose primary experience of presidents was of that under Indonesia’s Suharto. But this does not reflect Timor-Leste’s parliamentary constitution.
Timor-Leste’s presidential candidates would do well to closely study the country’s constitution. If they did so, they might be a little more circumspect in the claims they have been making about what they would do if elected as president.

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