If it was intended as an act of sneaky rat cunning -- first get elected and then seize total power -- Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi's edicts last Thursday which have thrown the country into turmoil were both painfully transparent as well as being a high-risk gamble.
Exempting presidential decrees from judicial review fundamentally challenges the idea of separation of powers, which is critical to democratic functioning, is on the face of it an anti-democratic act. However, Egypt's judiciary remains that which was appointed by previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and there was real concern that it could, with the stroke of a pen, roll back the revolution.
The judiciary's hobbling of Egypt's parliament showed it is certainly not averse to wielding its power in overtly political ways.
When Timor-Leste's new Cabinet was announced, there was a flurry of critical comment within Timor-Leste, about both the size and composition of the ministry. Some critics were unhappy that an expanded ministry would cost more and potentially lead to more corruption while others railed against Timor-Leste becoming an ‘oligarchy’ rather than a democracy.
The positive aspect of this commentary is that is shows that Timor-Leste is a plural political society expressing a range of political views. It is also important to note that while some of the commentary reflected partisan political positions, much of it also reflected a genuine concern over the size and capacity of the government.
The new ministry, with 17 ministers, is not especially large by any standard and is much smaller than many of other countries. The criticism therefore reflects on the inclusion of vice-ministers and secretaries of state, who exercise quasi-ministerial functions.
The results of the parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste on Saturday have resulted in two outcomes, the first of which is a major boost in the vote for CNRT, the party of prime minister Xanana Gusmao, from 24 per cent to 36 per cent of the total vote. The second and more important outcome has been the consolidation of the democratic process in Timor-Leste just ten years after achieving independence.
After changing government in 2007, the people of Timor-Leste have again voted strategically, to focus their vote on the major parties, with CNRT taking much of the vote away from the many smaller parties which tended to reflect personalities rather than policies or party positions.
CNRT will probably form government with one or possible two coalition partners. Of the 21 parties that contested the poll, 17 now appear to have missed the cut-off threshold of three per cent, leaving just four, possibly five, represented in the parliament.
On Sunday 20 May, East Timor will celebrate ten years of independence. As a nation born from the ashes of destruction, its first decade has been marked by problems and set-backs. Many in East Timor, not least its outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, lament a lack of development since independence. Ramos-Horta notes that the international community has spent billions of dollars in East Timor, yet most East Timorese remain amongst the world’s poorest people. But a little over a year ago, Ramos-Horta said that the country had never been better. The question is, in part, whether the metaphorical glass is half empty or half full. It is also, in part, whether the speaker – in this case Ramos-Horta – had a political score to settle. In early 2011, Ramos-Horta was still firmly in Gusmao’s political tent. A year later, he is an ex-president outside that tent. Many East Timorese have also been disappointed with independence.
As Timor-Leste moves towards marking the 10th anniversary of its independence and completing the third round of its national elections, the question arises as to whether it has consolidated its democracy. The assumption is that consolidating democracy is a necessary step towards ending internal conflict and regularising the affairs of the state. But, the second question is, when one talks about consolidating democracy, what they mean by the term? Having three sets of elections at regular intervals is certainly a good sign of democratic consolidation in Timor-Leste. Yet elections alone do not comprise democracy. Indonesia had regular elections between 1977 and 1997 under its New Order government, yet it was very far from being a democratic state at that time. It is not enough to have the formal procedure of democracy; one also requires the substance, if the term is to have meaning.
States that have been colonised commonly reflect elements of their colonial past. Timor-Leste has the unusual distinction of having been colonised by two different powers in living memory, with each leaving significant elements of themselves imprinted upon Timorese society.
The imprint of Portuguese colonialism is officially recognised and embraced, not least through official language, architectural heritage, religion and a continuing affinity with Lusophone states. Even Tetum, an indigenous trading language developed from the older Tetum Terik, is heavily inflected with Portuguese, particularly in its courtesies.
Despite the often neglectful and sometimes brutal nature of Portuguese colonialism, Timor-Leste’s elites in particular retain fond memories of Portuguese paternalism. Their relationship to the other colonial power is more qualified, yet Indonesia has also left indelible imprints in Timor-Leste.
Amongst Timor-Leste’s traditions, there is none more central to how Timorese understand themselves in relation to their world than that of lulic, or that which is ‘sacred’.
While a sense of lulic is not always visible, especially in life that is affected by elements of modernity, such as in a town or in Dili, it continues to lie under the surface for many, perhaps most, Timorese.
The idea of lulic can apply to place, to the relationship between things, such as the sun and the moon or the earth and the sky, to relationships between people, to life and death and social obligations and to symbols of authority and social organisation.
As traditions evolve and change to incorporate new elements, so too has lulic changed to incorporate such symbols.
Old Portuguese swords may be considered as lulic, as can flags that have a particular value or importance.
As East Timor heads to the polls this year, starting with the presidential election next month, it will be embarking on a new and hopefully more positive phase of its often troubled development. East Timor now appears to be moving along a path of stability and hope, but a number of major issues await its new government but.
First among the issues to confront East Timor’s new government will be how to handle the withdrawal of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force later in the year. East Timor is now much more stable since the 2006 crisis and looks to remain so, but its police are still poorly trained and underlying problems continue, including poverty and high levels of unemployment.
Timor-Leste will go to the polls as a result of its five-year electoral cycle on 17 March, kicking off an electoral process that will run until early July.
The question hanging over this process is whether it will mark the formal consolidation of democracy in the once deeply troubled territory, or whether it will signal a return to the problems of 2006–07 — which have been a common feature in many other post-conflict, post-colonial states.
Occupy protestors have a right to protest; police powers to move them on from public spaces should be questioned. RynChristophe/Youtube