Lawmakers who were elected in East Timor's parliamentary elections last month sat for their first session yesterday but were tight-lipped over how they expect to break a deadlock over forming a government.
The June 30 polls were supposed to herald a new chapter in the young country's democracy after more than a year of sporadic violence and political tension that followed deadly unrest on Dili's streets.
But bickering parties, none of which snared the majority of seats needed to govern, have failed to agree on how to divide power as the impoverished but oil and gas rich nation tackles a slew of economic and social challenges.
All 65 members of parliament turned up for the inaugural session yesterday, including former prime minister Mari Alkatiri and his chief rival, independence hero Xanana Gusmao.
"You are seeing me laughing," Gusmao said when asked how he felt to be back at work, seemingly downplaying tensions between parties. Lawmakers have been holding unsuccessful talks to thrash out a solution to their stalemate.
Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) holds 18 seats but has allied with smaller parties and wants to form a coalition government with 37 seats. Alkatiri's Fretilin party, which had governed since East Timor's independence in 2002, won just 21 seats.
The Constitution is unclear on who should form a government and select the prime minister in such a scenario, but final authority rests with the president, Nobel Peace Prize-laureate Jose Ramos-Horta.
Ramos-Horta, who has been pushing for a unity government and attended the parliamentary session, has warned that if the parties do not reach their own agreement by Monday he will act unilaterally to decide.
Asked for comments on the possibility of a unity government, Alkatiri was non-committal, saying that "participation [in government] should not only be limited to a party or those who sit in parliament.
"We should also seek the participation of society and the Catholic Church so that development can be accelerated," he told reporters.
Ramos-Horta fears the CNRT-led coalition would be unstable, but has said Fretilin cannot form a government alone as it won insufficient votes.
Lawmakers were due later yesterday to elect the parliament's president by secret ballot.
The elections in the former Portuguese colony were largely peaceful, in contrast to violence on the streets of the capital Dili in April and May last year that left at least 37 people dead.
Tensions have risen again in Dili over the past few weeks, with repeated low-level run-ins between UN police and youth gangs. Ten UN vehicles have been damaged in incidents, police said.
More than 2,000 UN police and Australian-led international peacekeepers, who were first called in to subdue last year's violence, are overseeing security in the country.
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