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  • Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and Democratization by Lydia M. Beuman
  • Rui Graça Feijó (bio)
Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and Democratization. By Lydia M. Beuman. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2016. Hardcover: 141pp.

After the 1999 referendum which led to its independence from Indonesia, East Timor underwent a unique political process. The United Nations (UN) transitional authority was given unprecedented powers to lay the foundations for a democratic polity. Disregarding academic wisdom on pre-requisites for democratic survival encapsulated in Juan Linz’s dictum “no state, no Rechtsstaat, no democracy” (1991), Timor-Leste embarked on a simultaneous process of state-building and democracy-building. In this context, the Constituent Assembly adopted a government system not found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but sometimes found in young democracies in other parts of the world: semi-presidentialism, a system in which a popularly elected fixed-term president exists alongside a prime minister and cabinet officials who are collectively responsible to the legislature.

Lydia M. Beuman presents a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the formative years of this innovative experience. Based on her doctoral thesis, the book attains the highest standards of academic proficiency: it includes a comprehensive survey of the existing literature; is grounded in fieldwork during which the author engaged with all the relevant actors; and provides a cogent analytical framework.

The book begins with an introduction to the theoretical debates on the relationship between semi-presidentialism and democracy, followed by a characterization of the Timorese case, positing that it falls into the “premier-presidential” sub-type of semi-presidentialism, i.e., one in which the survival of government depends solely on parliamentary support. Chapter 3 offers a historical overview of the framework through which semi-presidentialism was derived. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the notions of “cohabitation” and “divided government” during two different periods under President Xanana Gusmão, before Chapter 6 addresses the “unified majority government” under President Jose Ramos-Horta. Chapter 7 discusses the main findings pertaining to the relationship between semi-presidentialism and democracy, and suggests that the former “facilitated institutional conflict” (p. 121) even if at the end of the day democracy survived. Finally, in Chapter 8, Beuman offers a [End Page 318] Postscript surveying the main developments under the presidency of Taur Matan Ruak.

After establishing semi-presidentialism as a tertium genus of government systems, today’s analysts contemplate several sub-types, namely those emerging from Matthew S. Shugart and John M. Carey’s 1992 work on “premier-presidentialism” and “president-parliamentarism”. More than just an exercise in taxonomy, in 2011 Robert Elgie suggested these categories help explain the survival of regimes and the quality of democracy, given the incentive mechanisms operating under each of those sub-types. Beuman claims Timor-Leste to be “premier-presidentialist” (assumed to generate incentives for good quality democracy that tends to endure), echoing the majoritarian standpoint. However, I consider this claim to be inconsistent with section 107 of the Constitution: the government is doubly responsible before the parliament and the president — a situation generally classified as “president-parliamentarism”. The argument that the responsibility of the government before the president is merely institutional is not corroborated in the case of Timor-Leste. The political nature of this dependency was made clear by President Ramos-Horta’s decision to appoint the leader of the second largest party as prime minister, who then managed to construct a post-electoral majoritarian platform and consequently, relegated the largest party to the opposition. Both Presidents Xanana and Ramos-Horta considered their powers of supervision to be political rather than institutional; both leaders felt they could dismiss the prime minister based on a political assessment of the office holder’s performance.

In her analysis of tensions at the heart of the semi-presidential system, Beuman employs the concept of “cohabitation”. Usually in such a system the president and prime minister belong to different and competing parties; but in Timor-Leste all three presidents fought the election as “independent” candidates without party affiliations. The related notions of “divided government” and “unified majority government” presuppose the president has been engaged in party politics. However, since the issue of “independent” presidents was singled out...


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pp. 318-320
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