Subject: SCMP: Ignorance Main Fear for E. Timor's First Election

South China Morning Post Monday, July 16, 2001


Ignorance main fear for first assembly election


Campaigning began yesterday for East Timor's first election, but confusion reigns in the minds of voters about what they are voting for and whether it bears any relation to what they want.

Fears are high that campaigning could bring violence back to centre stage, but analysts are divided on whether such fears are justified.

"The biggest dangers for the election are ignorance, disinformation and the resulting confusion," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, chief of the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (Untaet).

Another danger is "manipulation of the population by a minority that wants to upset democracy in East Timor, that does not want an independent East Timor".

On August 30, almost 400,000 eligible East Timorese will choose between 16 registered political parties to form an 88-member assembly.

That constituent assembly is charged with devising a constitution for the future independent state of East Timor within 90 days. It would then become the first parliament of the independent state of East Timor.

But there is much confusion along the way. Some local leaders say a second parliamentary election is needed after the constitution is confirmed. Others see the coming election as one for the new parliament, and still others look on it as the election of a transitional body to draft a constitution.

Little wonder then that surveys by groups such as the Asia Foundation suggest the system is not as simple to those involved.

Only five per cent of the population understood that the August election is for a constitutional assembly. Two-thirds thought they would be voting for president.

Many have questioned why they have to vote again, saying they made their choice about the future almost two years ago when East Timorese chose independence from Indonesia.

The answer from Untaet is that a state can only legitimately be formed through the democratic choice of constitution and leadership.

But the problem with elections, say some East Timorese when quizzed by outsiders, is that they raise the risk of division when what really is ] needed is a national consensus.

Perhaps that consensus desire will find greatest expression in votes for the party formed by the pro-independence guerillas of times past, Fretilin. That group also boasts internal divisions but is said by analysts to carry the only chance of a decisive win by any party.

Democratic experience is thin on the ground in East Timor. Centuries of colonial rule by Portugal and 25 years of Indonesian occupation left only a few messy months of political feuding in 1975 after Portugal withdrew and before Indonesia invaded.

Many East Timorese have known only violence as a route to resolving disputes. Recent months have seen intimidation of political rivals, the burning of properties and other threats to the peace. Both the newly formed East Timor defence force (made up of former guerillas) and the Untaet peacekeepers are on alert for any increased violence.

Last week, 14 of the 16 parties signed a pact of national unity to maintain peace in the days that lie ahead.

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