East Timor's minority government could fall within days

SPECIAL 010829 xanana pool.010829.pool photo by andrew meares.fairfax.east timor... East Timorese presidential candidate Xanana Gusmao is held aloft by the crowd as they welcome him to the village of Malelat in Occusi, East timor on Wednesday 29 August 2001. Gusmao visited several regions in East Timor pleading for calm ahead of the August 30 poll to elect a constituent assembly. .
SPECIAL 010829 xanana pool.010829.pool photo by andrew meares.fairfax.east timor... East Timorese presidential candidate Xanana Gusmao is held aloft by the crowd as they welcome him to the village of Malelat in Occusi, East timor on Wednesday 29 August 2001. Gusmao visited several regions in East Timor pleading for calm ahead of the August 30 poll to elect a constituent assembly. .

Only four months after taking office East Timor's minority government is set to fall, possibly within days, amid tense political manoeuvrings in Australia's nearest north-western neighbour.

Uncertainty about the make up of a new government could delay ratification of a landmark agreement to develop billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

The government led by Mari Alkatiri from the one-time revolutionary party Fretilin faces a second vote of no confidence in its programs from a three-party opposition alliance which holds a majority of seats in Parliament.

Alkatiri has attempted to delay the vote, claiming opposition parties are attempting to stage a coup, as money for government programs rapidly runs out.

Defeat in the vote would automatically trigger the government's fall.

President Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, who is aligned with Fretilin, could dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections to be held within months.

Guterres could also invite the second largest party - the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction led by former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao - to form government, with two other smaller opposition parties.

At the centre of the fractious stand-off are Alkatiri and Gusmao, the country's two most dominating political figures who have had bitter fallings out in the past.

Gusmao, a wily political operator and hero of East Timor's struggle for independence, has wielded the most power behind the scenes while leading his country's negotiations with Australia on a Timor Sea maritime boundary and sharing arrangements for the $50 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field.

As political tensions have risen Gusmao has stayed out of the country, prompting many Timorese to ask what role he will play in any political resolution.

Analysts say without his approval of a new government political uncertainty will remain.

Professor Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, said the impasse has brought to the fore lingering divisions between resistance figures during the independence struggle and leaders who remained outside East Timor during Indonesia's 22-year occupation.

Some local newspapers have used this potentially divisive theme openly in headlines.

Leach said while some East Timorese see a personality clash between Alkatiri and Gusmao, many see a deeper clash about the type of government and which parties should be included.

"Despite the political ructions, East Timorese society remains largely calm," he said.

"Leaving aside the return of a more belligerent form of democracy and the accusations of an institutional coup, this political standoff demonstrates that the checks and balances in the constitutional system are operating, with strong accountability to Parliament."

In March, East Timor and Australia are set to sign a treaty on maritime boundary that has been negotiated under UN supervision at The Hague, ending years of bitter disagreement that strained ties between the neighbours.

Any new government in Dili will have to ratify it.

Details of the agreement have not been made public.

Over years Gusmao has demanded that any development of the Greater Sunrise involve an nshore LNG processing plant on a remote part of East Timor, which he envisages becoming an industrial hub.

But the field's joint venture partners, led by Woodside Petroleum, say bringing the gas ashore to East Timor across a deep undersea trench is uneconomic.

They want to exploit the reserves through a floating LNG platform or pipe the gas to an existing LNG plant in Darwin.

Gusmao is tipped to head a new authority to oversee Greater Sunrise's development, which is critical to East Timor's future as existing joint gas fields with Australia run dry in the next few years.

This story East Timor's minority government could fall within days first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.