New Timor Leste PM pledges to bring unity after political deadlock

Former East Timor independence fighter Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak is seen following his swearing in ceremony as the country's new prime minister in Dili, East Timor, on June 22, 2018.
Former East Timor independence fighter Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak is seen following his swearing in ceremony as the country's new prime minister in Dili, East Timor, on June 22, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

DILI (REUTERS, AFP) - Former Timor Leste independence fighter Jose Maria de Vasconcelos was sworn in as prime minister on Friday (June 22) and pledged to bring unity to the nation after months of political deadlock.

President Francisco Guterres dissolved parliament in January after former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's minority government faced a legislative stalemate.

De Vasconcelos is known as Taur Matan Ruak, which means "two sharp eyes". He served in the largely ceremonial role of president between 2012 and 2017.

He belongs to a three-party coalition, the Alliance of Change for Progress (AMP), that won 34 of the 65 seats up for grabs in May's parliamentary election, the fifth since independence from Indonesia in 2002.

The alliance includes his People's Liberation Party (PLP), members of independence hero Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and the youth-based Khunto.

During his swearing-in at a restored presidential palace built during Portuguese colonial rule, De Vasconcelos promised to "dedicate all my energies and knowledge to the defence and consolidation of independence and national unity".

But illustrating challenges to forming a stable new government, Guterres a day earlier had rejected eight of the ministers put forward by De Vasconcelos because of corruption investigations.

A 2017 parliamentary election produced no clear winner, with Alkatiri's Fretilin party winning just 0.2 per cent more votes than CNRT, and forming a minority government in the country of 1.2 million people.

Guterres said the political deadlock had created "fear and uncertainty" and the new government needed to use its mandate to"boost national development, living conditions in the communities throughout the country and develop our economy".

Asia's youngest democracy has been largely peaceful in recent years following recurrent bouts of political instability that it suffered since independence.

But it has struggled to reduce poverty, stamp out corruption and develop its rich oil and gas resources.

The energy sector made up about 60 per cent of gross domestic product in 2014 and more than 90 per cent of government revenue.

De Vasconcelos said his new government would improve equality and develop the economy so it does not "just rely on interest from the petroleum fund".

Gusmao, the country's first president and a former prime minister, is expected to be take up a special ministerial post to advise the prime minister, an AMP official has said.