Difficult cases of cohabitation – East Timor

In a previous series of posts I recorded the cases of cohabitation in countries with semi-presidential constitutions. Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet.

One potential problem with this definition is that non-party presidents cannot generate any periods of cohabitation. The problem is that some nominally non-partisan presidents may actually be de facto partisans. If this is the case, then the cases of cohabitation may be underestimated.

This new series of posts discusses ‘difficult’ cases of cohabitation, meaning the situation where nominally non-partisan presidents are de facto partisans and where there are no other supporters of the president in the government.

For the record, I take party affiliation from worldstatesmen.org. To the best of my knowledge, there is no systematic error in the recording of non-partisanship there. Moreover, there is nothing in their recording of non-partisanship that allows a rule to be applied to these cases in order to identify ‘difficult’ cases of cohabitation. As a result, the determination of such cases has to be made on a case-by-case basis.

The first case is East Timor (Timor-Leste) and thanks to Ben Reilly for flagging this one.

In August 2001, FRETILIN won 55 of the 88 seats in the first East Timorese parliamentary election. In April 2002, Xanana Gusmão was elected as the first president of East Timor. Gusmão ran as an independent. Hence, he is classed as non-partisan. However, while his presidency was endorsed by a number of small parties, he was not supported by FRETILIN. Indeed, he had left FRETILIN in the 1980s. Moreover, in 2007 he formed a party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (Conselho Nacional de Reconstrução do Timor, CNRT) that competed against FRETILIN. Therefore, there are grounds for thinking of Gusmão as a de facto partisan.

In May 2002 the first constitutional government was formed with Mari Alkatiri of FRETILIN as prime minister. FRETILIN was the only party represented in the government. This government lasted until July 2006. If Gusmão is considered to be a de facto partisan and there was a FRETILIN government, then this might be a case of cohabitation. Indeed, Dennis Shoesmith (in Robert Elgie and Sophia Moestrup eds., Semi-presidentialism Outside Europe, 2007, p. 227) refers to a period of “conflictual cohabitation” during this time.

There is, though, a small fly in the ointment. From 2002-2006, there was at least one nominally non-partisan minister in the government, José Manuel Ramos-Horta. There is reason to believe that Gusmão and Ramos-Horta were allies of a sort. Ramos-Horta had also left FRETILIN, though in 1998. In 2006, he was appointed as prime minister of the second constitutional government by President Gusmão. In May 2007, Ramos-Horta was elected as president against the official FRETILIN candidate, though worldstatesmen.org records him as a non-party president. In August 2007 President Ramos-Horta appointed Gusmão as prime minister. If Ramos-Horta and Gusmão were allies, then the first constitutional government was not a period of cohabitation.

So, what should we conclude? Well, there are some grounds to identify the period from 2002-2006 as a period of de facto cohabitation. The case that Gusmão was a de facto partisan is quite strong. The case that Ramos-Horta was a de facto partisan and from the same party as Gusmão is less strong. If Gusmão was a de facto partisan and Ramos-Horta was non-partisan or a de facto partisan from a different party to Gusmão, then there was a period of de facto cohabitation.

As with any ‘difficult’ case of cohabitation, no definitive conclusion can be drawn. Indeed, this is why I believe it is better to define cohabitation systematically and in a way that allows periods of cohabitation to be identified reliably. However, this is definitely a difficult case.

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