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Thwarting the people’s will: preventing the formation of a progressive coalition government in Timor-Leste

The Network for Social Democracy in Asia (Socdem Asia) Statement on the attempt to thwart the formation of a progressive government in Timor-Leste

Socdem Asia is concerned with the political developments transpiring in Timor-Leste. What is transpiring is an attempt by opposition parties to topple the FRETILIN-led government coalition despite their own declarations of remaining as a constructive opposition and to ensure stability in governance.

As it stands, the progressive Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente (FRETILIN) has been voted by the people to lead a government during the 22 July 2017 General Elections. While it has not received the absolute majority of votes, it is the largest political party in parliament with 23 out of 65 seats (The smaller Democratic Party, or PD, has joined FRETILIN to form a minority government of 30 members of parliament). As the largest party, FRETILIN has the priority of forming the government as provided by the Constitution of Timor-Leste. Moreover, the second largest party National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) has publicly declared its commitment to remain as an opposition party and decline any opportunity to form a coalition government. Other parties in the opposition have made similar gestures by declaring that they would be constructive opposition parties. On such grounds, the President of the Republic formally designated FRETILIN Secretary-General Dr. Mari Alkatiri as the new Prime Minister at the proposal of FRETILIN and The PD and after consultations with all the parties with Parliamentary seats as mandated by the Constitution.

Despite their promise to remain in opposition to serve their constitutional role as a check on government, the CNRT, Popular Liberation Party (PLP), and KHUNTO party have scrambled for a last-ditched effort to form their own coalition government. These opposition parties voted against the FRETILIN-led coalition program of government solely on the ground of the governing coalition has no Parliamentary Majority while making no substantial arguments against the program and openly declared their intent to form a government even though a government has been formed.

Even in normal procedures in parliamentary democracies, such a scenario would be out of the ordinary. Minority coalitions are allowed to take the reins of government and prove that their program of government works. This is not the case. No opportunity was given to FRETILIN to make its case of a progressive and democratic program of government. This ploy by the opposition parties is borne of bad faith and is clearly an attempt to prevent FRETILIN from becoming a working government at all costs despite the fact that from 2015-2017, FRETILIN supported the CNRT led minority government while remaining in the opposition for the sake of stability and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions.

FRETILIN’s electoral victory cannot be denied. The people have granted it the authority and mandate as the largest party with the responsibility to form a working government. At every opportunity, the other parties have actively blocked such attempts, contradicting their own admirable commitments not to form a government. This complete u-turn is simple political jockeying at the expense of the people. The Timorese people voted for a progressive, working, and stable government not political drama.

For a small and young country such as Timor-Leste wrangling with a traumatic past of occupation and war, small political upheavals are magnified and harm the people. The Timorese people expect and deserve mature political leadership.

To this end, Socdem Asia calls on all political leaders in Timor-Leste to respect the will of the people of Timor-Leste. The will of the people means that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the FRETILIN-led coalition must continue with its constitutional duty to govern and for the other parties to fully exercise their constitutional duty as check and balance on government as a constructive opposition. Attempts to wrestle power without properly engaging the program of governance by the FRETILIN-led coalition is not in line with the mandate given by the people during the elections.

We also urge the Timorese people to ensure that their decision during the last elections is actualized. Albeit a young country, they have shown their commitment to democracy. Now, they must ensure that their leaders do the same. Their vigilance is needed to prevent attempts to hijack their democratic decision. They voted for a stable and progressive government. This is what they deserve.

Authoritarianism and neo-liberalism: strengthening and consolidating not ‘sharing and caring’

Socdem Asia Statement on ASEAN Summit

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks its 50th anniversary, we have begun to witness the troubling erosion in the internal coherence, moral conviction and political will of the regional organisation. For years, the ASEAN has been credited  for its commendable efforts to prevent conflict among its members nations, which now include the most diverse collection of democracies, autocracies and communist regimes anywhere in the world. The regional body has also been credited for facilitating easier flow of commodities, investments and people across Southeast Asian nations, raising millions out of extreme poverty and boosting economies across the board.

Yet, this year marked a significant setback for ASEAN’s hopes of establishing a truly “caring and sharing community.” Operating on a perversely inefficient unanimity-based decision making process, and obstinately holding onto a distorted principle of “non-interference”, it has miserably failed to even openly acknowledge egregious crimes perpetrated by member nations against their own citizens.

This troubling development has been painfully evident in the heart-wrenching case of Rohingya people, who have been at the receiving end of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing and, in the view of some, outright genocide at the hands of the Myanmar junta. And yet, the ASEAN has failed to make even a robust statement condemning such egregious acts.

Meanwhile, throughout the region, we have seen a dramatic backsliding among regional democracies, particularly in the Philippines under president Rodrigo Duterte, who has waged a bloody drug war that has claimed thousands of lives and openly threatened the country’s fledgling institutions of accountability and transparency.

In Thailand the continued grip on power by the military junta has effectively silenced dissent at all levels of government. Critics of military rule from politicians to student activists have been jailed. Moreover, the military junta has further cemented its control over institutions such as the national assembly.

In Malaysia, the country’s long time ruling coalition has continued engage on causing racial and religious tensions to consolidate its grip on power while Prime Minister Najib Razak has evaded accountability from massive corruption charges. An upcoming general elections might prove to remove the governing coalition from power however previous elections have shown that even the electoral system is subjected to machinations by the ruling regime.

Cambodia’s political situation is equally dire with the political opposition under extreme repression and the country’s human rights situation worsening. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has increased attacks against political oppositionists, human rights workers and civil society activists.

In parallel, the increasing neoliberalization of regional economies has created a growing pool of insecure workers, who lack stable and dignified job, and massive inequality, as the tiny well-connected elite gobbles up much of the newly created economic pie. In short, what we are witnessing is an increasingly undemocratic and unresponsive grouping of autocrats, who have failed to bring about a people-centred regional integration process.

But the ASEAN wasn’t built to be a club of self-seeking autocrats. We, social democratic and progressives, call upon the ASEAN to establish a truly caring and sharing community by taking a principled stance against massive crimes against humanity, especially among member states; refuse to give effective veto power to erring member states by instead adopting majority-view on sensitive issues where unanimity is impossible; dispense with distorted notions of sovereignty and non-interference by upholding basic dignity and universal rights of Southeast Asian citizens; and establish appropriate regional mechanisms and international partnerships to foster people-centred democratic governance.  We also call upon global institutions and actors to facilitate and aid capacity building in the ASEAN so that the regional body can better respond to emerging challenges of providing basic services and protection for Southeast Asian peoples.

Development Allocation: for Najib, not for the rakyat

The Prime Minister and Finance Minister Dato ‘Seri Najib Razak declared Budget 2018 to be the “mother of all budgets”. In fact, the primary purpose of the Budget 2018 was to empower Najib to consolidate his political position. While not much was left for development.

With a total allocation of RM 280 billion, Budget 2018 is no doubt the “mother of all budgets”. This marks an increase of RM 20 billion compared to RM 260 billion in 2016 and 2017.

Comparatively Najib’s first budget as Prime Minister in 2010 was only RM 190 billion. This means the budget has been increased by 67% since then.

Total expenditure for years 2010 to 2018

Although Budget 2018 has ballooned by RM20 billion, development expenditure remained at RM46 billion from 2017, making up only 16% of the total budget, the lowest in our history. In 2010, development expenditure was 27% from the overall budget.

Development allocation in absolute figure was higher in 2010 at RM51.2 billion , while the budgeted amount for this year is only RM46 billion. If you take into consideration inflation and depreciation of ringgit, it shows the shrinking of our development budget in a big way.

It is shocking to see that the actual development spending for 2013 to 2016 was very low. Especially in 2014, the amount was not even RM40 billion, which means there was hardly any development under Najib!

Budget Comparison with Real Expenditure for Year 2010 to 2018

The amount of development expenditure announced is not necessarily the actual amount spent. For example, the development budget for the year 2016 amounted to RM50 billion, but the actual amount that was spent was only RM 42 billion. No wonder there were hardly any upgrading of roads, hospitals and schools.

Instead, the lion’s share of the budget went to the Prime Minister’s Department (PMD), which claimed 26% of the total allocation for development expenditure compared to just 8.1% in 2008.

The PMD will now receive a total of RM17.43 billion from Budget 2018 while allocations for operating and development expenditure were only RM5.2 billion and RM12.21 billion respectively. This amount given to the PMD is extremely high, especially when allocations to other ministries such as education, welfare, and health were disproportionately inadequate.

Although PMD oversees 92 departments and agencies, this is not a justification for such unnecessarily high allocation at the expense of other crucial needs such as healthcare and education whose budget reduction would hit ordinary Malaysians hard.

In the first place, there are many departments and agencies which should not be placed under the PMD. To prevent overlapping and coordination issues, it makes more sense for those agencies to be placed under the relevant ministries. For instance, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) should be under the purview of the Transport Ministry. Majlis Professor Negara should be under the watch of the Ministry of Higher Education and Permata should arguably be handled by the Ministry of Education instead.

These “Slush Funds” were invented by Najib

Most of the development provision for the PMD can be described as ‘slush funds’. These kind of funds did not exist in the past but was invented in the era of Najib’s administration as Prime Minister and for the purpose of his political survival.

When I delivered my speech on Budget 2018 in Parliament on Monday, 30th October, former Minister of Finance, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was in the House. It was Tengku Razaleigh who told me that during his tenure in the Finance Ministry, all additional spending that had not been budgeted required the approval of the Finance Minister. He said that back then, there was hardly any discretionary spending.

“Slush Funds” in the Prime Minister’s Department

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Only the Prime Minister has the absolute power to determine how these “slush funds” are to be spent. This is a huge amount under the absolute discretion of the PMD, and there is little accountability and transparency as to how the money is to be spent.

The slush funds for 2018 has been increased by RM2 billion as compared to 2017. The details of this spending are usually not submitted to MPs, and receive even lesser scrutiny from the public.

The truth of the matter is that the parliamentary institution itself has been controlled and undermined by the ruling party for a long time, as such the authorities are practically powerless to scrutinize the spending of these ‘slush funds’.

It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that such ‘slush funds’ are used by the Prime Minister to procure loyalties especially in view of the impending general election.

Liew Chin Tong

(Press Statement by DAP National Political Education Director and Member of Parliament for Kluang Liew Chin Tong in Kuala Lumpur on 31 October 2017)