As
the shambles of East Timor continues to unfold and foreign observers
and politicians bay for the political blood of Prime Minister Mari
Alkatiri, they appear to be forgetting some constitutional facts.
Despite Alkatiri being widely condemned as “arrogant” – dismissive of
genuine concerns would be more accurate – and nepotistic, he remains
the democratically elected leader of the democratically elected East
Timor Constituent Assembly, its parliament.

Under the
constitution, it is not possible for the prime minister to be sacked or
his government removed other than through a vote of no confidence by a
majority in the parliament, or the rejection three times of a bill. Any
attempt to go outside either the constitution or the parliament would
invite vastly greater division within East Timor and create a long-term
political and security nightmare.

However, when parliament
resumes, if there is a successful vote of no confidence in Alkatiri’s
leadership, he must go. Beyond this, he and his government face the
people next year and while Fretilin retains considerable support it may
not retain an absolute majority. A coalition with a smaller party, then
looks possible, although the likelihood of a coalition that does not
include Fretilin seems a more remote.

In any case, short of a
vote of no confidence, Alkatiri looks set to hang on, to try to rebuild
Fretilin’s support base before the elections of May 2007.

Regardless
of the success of Alkatiri or Fretilin, East Timor’s defence force, the
F-FDTL, is a shambles. When the F-FDTL was established in 2001, there
was vigorous debate about the need for an army, given its cost and lack
of functional capacity.

The UN proposed that East Timor did not
need and should not have an army, but simply have a well equipped
police force. It was effectively overruled by former guerrilla
commanders.

Now more than a third of its troops having defected,
“loyalist” elements have been involved in murder, as well as previous
attacks against police, the institution has been rife with dissent, and
it has posed a background threat to the government since its inception
in 2001.

With 1500 members when all is well, the army is far too
small to be an effective defence force, it consumes 8% (c
US$18.5 million) of a government budget that already struggles to meet
basic needs, and has caused political mayhem. In short, the F-FDTL
should now be scrapped.

To do this, the government would have to
agree to retrain soldiers, and seek a defence treaty with an external
guaranteeing power – more than likely Australia. This is possible, as
getting rid of the F-FDTL would be one positive outcome of this whole
sorry mess in East Timor.