Sydney Morning Herald
Monday, February 11, 2002
East Timor approves draft constitution
By Jill Jolliffe, Herald Correspondent in Dili
In another step towards nationhood, East Timor’s constituent assembly has approved a draft of a constitution guaranteeing basic civil liberties and a mixed economy for the new state that will emerge on Australia’s doorstep in May.
The 168-clause document establishes a semi-presidential system of government. Under it an elected president can dismiss the prime minister and veto legislation, but in a framework of strong checks and balances.
In a special parliamentary session on Saturday the constitution was hailed by the Speaker, Francisco Guterres, as a document that “honours those who died” during East Timor’s 24-year struggle against Indonesian military occupation.
East Timor was a Portuguese colony for 350 years before Indonesia invaded in 1975.
It has been under UN administration since 1999, when its 700,000 people voted for independence from Indonesia.
The draft constitution will be subject to public scrutiny for one month, with a final vote taking place in March.
It will come into force on Independence Day, May 20.
The constitution is the product of five months of debate by the 88-member assembly elected last year, which is dominated by the nationalist Fretilin Party.
Its acceptance was not unanimous: deputies from the opposition Social Democrat, UDT and Democrat parties abstained, but said they would respect the majority will. The result was a vote of 65 for and 13 abstentions, with 10 deputies absent.
The main concern of the dissidents was Article 166, which allows the assembly - elected principally to draft the constitution - to turn itself into a fully fledged legislature that could stay in power for another five years. They consider that it has fulfilled its function and that a date for new elections should be set.
“I don’t believe the present draft reflects the will of the people,” a Social Democrat, Lucia Lobato, said. She felt the UN should clarify the situation.
The new constitution is modelled largely on that of Portugal and is word-for-word in some passages. The deputies also looked at the German and American constitutions and listened to advice from international experts.
Some deputies advocated giving sweeping powers to the president, as in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, but they did not carry the day.
Instead, there are sanctions to prevent a slide into dictatorship.
The constitutional framework will be a factor in determining whether the resistance hero Xanana Gusmao stands in presidential elections on April 14.
Deputies were lobbied by key sectors of Timorese society, including the Catholic church and media organisations.
Many had grievances with earlier drafts, most of which appeared to have been satisfied.
Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo had earlier published a series of objections to the first draft. These included Article 12, which used the phrase “separation of church and state”, and Article 39, which referred to divorce.
Article 12 has since been changed to refer to “relations between the state and religious groups”, while the offending passage in Article 39 was eliminated in the closing hours of the debate.
BD: Constitutional Process / Konsulta iha Konstituisaun - A collection of recent media releases, reports, articles and news