Regarding President Ramos-Horta ‘taking a position’ on the Greater Sunrise issue, there has been much discussion about the ‘competencies’ of the the President of Timor-Leste, which is to say there has been discussion about his (or her) powers and responsibilities as an active participant in the day to day poitical affairs of state. Because the previous and current president have been active in public life, indeed in some cases pro-active, this has led some observers to believe that Timor-leste enjoys a ‘semi-presidential’ political system. The term ‘semi-presidential system’ was coined by the French political scientist Maurice Duverger to describe the French Fifth Republic, in which the president enjoys a number of executive powers.
Under the Timor-Leste constitution, the president is essentially a ceremonial position, with technical authority over the armed forces (which formally devolves to the parliement under section 95.1.O), the power of veto of legislation and the power to point governments within a defined set of rules. These powers are similar to those enjoyed by deremonial presidents in a number of other parliamentary republics, such as Ireland, which are not semi-presidential systems. The President of Timor-Leste does not enjoy executive powers as such.
To illustrate this point, constitutional powers in relation to issues concerning current discussions about the placement of hydrocarbon processing plants are those of the parliament, under section 95.2.B, 95.3.F and 96.1.H.
There is no doubt that the President, in his long-standing and genuine concern for the people of Timor-Leste, wishes to ensure that major decisions of the state accord with his understanding of national interest. However, there does not appear to be any constitutional authority granted to the President to ‘decide’ on issues such as the Greater Sunrise issue. This is to say that perhaps the President has mis-read the constitution in relation to this matter (and others), or perhaps has not read or remembered the constitution at all.
Such blurring of fields of competency of state officials are not unusual in still relatively new states, and the actions of political actors prior to constitutional formalisation can sometimes cross over into the period in which the constitution is in place, in which the purpose of particular political roles becomes confused. But it might assist clarity of discussion of major policy issues is they were left to those people elected to have constitutional carriage for such tasks. For others who have ceremonial positions, as in other such states, they should be occasionally seen and rarely heard.
Professor Damien Kingsbury
School of International and Political Studies
Deakin University, Melbourne
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