Subject: FT: Nation Builders Watch East Timor Vote [+Violence-Weary Nation]

Financial Times (UK)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Nation Builders Watch East Timor Vote

By John Aglionby

When East Timor's 520,000 registered voters go to the polls on Saturday, they are expected to punish the leftwing Fretilin party for bringing political chaos rather than the promised stability and economic prosperity.

Leading the fight against Fretilin is Xanana Gusmao, charismatic former leader of the resistance to Indonesian rule and, until last month, East Timor's president. He has formed a party, the National Congress of East Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), and is using his massive personal appeal and dissatisfaction with Fretilin to garner support.

Diplomats around the world, and particularly in the United Nations, will be watching the general election closely because future nation-building programmes could hinge on the outcome.

Until the tiny country collapsed last year into such chaos that required 2,500 international peacekeepers to restore order, the world body championed East Timor as one of its most successful nation-building experiments.

"If the UN can make East Timor work and be a success, they can take it elsewhere and build on it," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic who is monitoring the elections.

"But if they fail, the argument would have to be that, if they can't succeed here, then they can't succeed anywhere."

Fretilin has said it would want the UN mission out within a year. Mr Gusmao is more supportive.

Fretilin, which holds 55 of 88 parliamentary seats, is confident of success even though it won less than 30 per cent in the presidential election this year.

That was won by Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel peace laureate, backed by Mr Gusmao. Mr Horta had been caretaker prime minister for 10 months until his victory. He had replaced as prime minister the Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri, who was forced out during the violence sparked when he fired a third of the military.

"The two elections are totally different," said Filomeno Aleixo, a Fretilin party spokesman. "That was negative voting. Now everyone is fighting for their own interests and so people will be voting positively."

Few people outside the party share his optimism. There are no opinion polls, but Fretilin's support in a nationwide proportional representation vote is predicted to mirror the presidential election, given that little has changed since then.

It is easy to understand Fretilin's plummeting popularity. Unemployment is 40 per cent and rising; 45 per cent of the 1m population survive on $1 a day or less; and only 50 per cent of the adult population are literate. More than 120,000 people displaced by last year's unrest remain in refugee camps.

The CNRT, buoyed by the backing of a Fretilin dissident group and promises of inclusive government, is thought likely to win a similar share of the vote to Fretilin, with the 12 other parties dividing the rest.

"It will then be down to who is the best at coalition-building," one diplomat said. "Most people reckon Xanana will emerge the winner, but surprises can't be ruled out."

During a largely peaceful campaign, Fretilin repeatedly attacked Mr Gusmao's lack of formal education and administrative experience.

Deonisio Babo, CNRT secretary-general, dismissed it as "stupid propaganda". "For years Xanana led the resistance [against Indonesia]. So he has clearly shown an ability to manage," he said.

Mr Babo believes the CNRT should win at least 29 seats in the new 65-seat legislature. More likely to cause problems, particularly for a coalition government, is the fact that, amid all the nation-building, the parliament has received little assistance. And it will have to pass legislation if poverty is to be alleviated.

Parliament received $20m, just 0.5 per cent, of the $3.65bn East Timor received in donor assistance from 1999 to 2006. "It seems unlikely that this [new] government will be any more effective," said the International Crisis Group think-tank this month.

Mr Babo disagrees. "With good leadership, momentum can be built up to move the country forward."

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