Subject: GLW: Socialists make gains in Timor elections

GreenLeft Weekly

Socialists make gains in Timor elections

Socialist Party of Timor (PST) general secretary Avelino da Silva recently visited Sydney and spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Max Lane about East Timor’s local elections, which began in December and will continue through to August.

Elections are held for suco (village) chief, aldeia (sub-village or ward chief) and for members of the suco council. Five members of the suco council are elected to sit alongside the suco and aldeia chiefs, comprising of two women, two youth and one elder (somebody over the age of 51).

The suco and aldeia councils are not executive positions and have no government funding, but exercise a leadership role in the village communities. Candidates are nominated in community meetings at the beginning of the campaign period for each district. There are 11 districts in East Timor with 470,000 voters.

Six of East Timor’s 17 political parties managed to achieve registration to participate in these elections. Parties had to prove that they had 1500 members to register. The successful parties were Fretilin (which currently heads the government), the PST, the Democratic Party (PD), the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) and the Millennium Democrat Party, a split from the PSD.

In the 2001 general elections, 12 parties stood and won representation in the national parliament. However, the majority of candidates standing in those elections were independent, as well as some individuals from parties who had lost preselection but still wanted to stand.

According to da Silva, the elections have been very important exercises in political education and in testing out the level of support for the parties in East Timor’s more settled post-independence situation. “The development of agriculture has been the key campaign issue so far”, he said.

“Agriculture is stagnating, and at the centre of this is the land issue. In rural areas, clans still hereditarily own land. We are demanding that this form of communal ownership is recognised and there is leadership and support for the development of cooperative farming on this land.

“If we were in government, we would form a ministry of cooperatives. There would be a ban on the sale of such land and capital would be provided to develop its productivity.”

Da Silva explained that even with the minimal resources of the PST they have already begun building such cooperatives. “We have raised productivity in the areas we have been working and also been able to provide extra schooling. We guarantee a demand for the rice and other produce by requiring our party members in Dili buy their rice from these cooperatives. They buy it cheaper and on credit.

“Rice farming has almost died in Timor as a result of imports from Indonesia. The only way to revive rice agriculture is through the promotion of cooperative farming and guaranteeing a market. The government buys the rice and then must start to partly pay its civil servants in rice.”

The PST is also demanding the nationalisation of the large land holdings held by private families who received land grants during the Portuguese colonial period.

By July, the elections had taken place in all districts apart from Liquica and in the capital city, Dili, where 110,000 of the 470,000 voters are now concentrated. “So far we have won almost 70 positions, including some suco and aldeia heads as well as suco council members. In the 2001 national elections, we won a total of around 6000 votes. This time, even before Dili, we [have won] over 20,000 votes. We are heading towards scoring 10% of the vote.

“In suco, where the PST has gone head-to-head with Fretilin in a two-horse race, and we have been active building cooperatives, we have won easily. But as a small party we are only standing around 1200 candidates right around Dili, a little less that 25% of total positions. There are many areas where we have not been able to stand candidates.”

In Dili, the political agenda is different. “Dili has 110,000 registered voters”, da Silva explained, “meaning there may be more than 200,000 inhabitants there now. This is up from 75,000 just a few years ago. Probably close to half these voters are studying at high school or university. There is more social unrest, great unemployment and also more politicisation. There are now newspapers and active radio stations and people also have access to TV.”

In Dili, there are more possibilities of open debate over issues such as government policy on Timor’s resources in the Timor Sea. “The PST’s position on the Timor Sea is that we must determine our sovereign borders first and only then deal with the exploitation of the oil and gas resources. We don’t agree with the government’s policy of delaying the border issue while doing a deal [with the Australian government] on the oil and gas.”

The PST also “want whatever monies that do come in invested in the strategic development sectors ­ in particular in agriculture ­ and not just banked away or used for cars, and luxury offices”.

Another debated issue is the proposed East Timor-Indonesian government Commission on Truth and Friendship. “The PST supports the call for an international tribunal for those who violated human rights in East Timor, including the Indonesian military. The commission proposed by [East Timorese President] Xanana Gusmao and the East Timor government allows for amnesty for those who participate. This will stand in the way of a tribunal. The victims during the occupation need justice. In fact, the PST has called for the commission to be abandoned altogether. And there is increasing support in the community for this demand, even in the parliament.”

Asked whether opposition to this commission would upset relations with Indonesia, Avelino explained that relations with Indonesia are getting “better and better”. He said: “Many Timorese have married Indonesians ... East Timor imports almost all of its consumer needs from Indonesia, so trade relations are good. There are more than 2500 young East Timorese studying in Indonesian universities. Indonesian is the lingua franca now in East Timor. What bookshops we have sell mainly Indonesian language books.

“The PST also stands for good relations with Indonesia ­ but primarily with the Indonesian people. In fact, we would like to see an end to the need for visas for travel between East Timor and Indonesia. The truth and friendship commission is all about good relations with the generals. In Indonesia itself, the pro-democracy movement, which played a big role in helping free East Timor, also wants these generals put on trial. The so-called reconciliation policy is only strengthening the position of these generals.”

The PST is also opposing the current policy of adopting Portuguese as a national language. “They are forgetting [East Timorese language] Tetum while there is also a tendency for the government to ban the use of Indonesian and English, even though the constitution names Indonesian and English as official working languages. Meanwhile, trying to use Portuguese is going to make problems for the education system. It is going to be difficult to get enough literature in Portuguese. In the field, everybody speaks and uses Indonesian.”

In Dili, the PST is putting forward 500 candidates who will contest all the aldeia head, suco head and suco council member positions. The PST is confident that it will substantially increase its vote. “Fretilin’s support will decrease. The suffering of the people is worst in Dili where there is such high unemployment and such a high cost of living.”

From late July, “the PST’s student, worker and women’s groups in Dili will launch campaigns to further raise the profile of PST’s policies.”

From Green Left Weekly, July 20, 2005.

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