Subject: FEER: East Timor's Imperfect Election [by Jill Jolliffe]

Far Eastern Economic Review

May 2007

East Timor's Imperfect Election

by Jill Jolliffe

The high level of instability afflicting East Timor since independence in May 2002 has its international partners wondering whether the new nation is suffering more than postindependence growing pains. Perhaps, they speculate, it is time to declare it a basket case. Of urgent relevance is whether the present cycle of scheduled elections, for a new president and parliament, will change things.

The country was rebuilt by the United Nations after Indonesia's scorched-earth withdrawal from the former Portuguese colony in 1999. The first free elections were held in April 2001, with former guerrilla chief Xanana Gusmão becoming president with 82.7% of the vote. In August of that year, the liberation party, Fretilin, won government with 55 seats in the 88-seat parliament, under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Even before independence there was concern in U.N. circles that some institutions it had built were fragile, particularly in the justice and law-enforcement sectors. Alarms sounded in December 2002, when rioters attacked parliament and burned politicians' homes and some businesses. The culprits have never been identified, but the issues they were acting out against included police brutality, alleged government corruption, unemployment and Portuguese as an official language.

Despite consolidating revenues from the Timor Sea gas and oil fields which are exploited jointly with Australia (income from the fields is predicted to rise to $350 million in fiscal year 2006), the Fretilin government has not attracted other steady investment. Discontent has grown as the economy stagnates.

Last year these sentiments climaxed over government mishandling of a mutiny by soldiers from western regions who accused army commanders of ethnic bias. Their rampage through Dili attacking government buildings and burning the homes of easterners sparked months of political and ethnic violence. Then-Prime Minister Alkatiri was forced to resign in June, after allegations, since shelved, that he armed civilians to kill political opponents.

The election underway in East Timor to replace President Xanana Gusmão, who has completed his term, is unlikely to cure the country's chronic troubles. Its likely outcome is a mere trading of places between government politicians. Even so, first-round results have served notice on the country's long-time leaders that they are dealing with a more discerning electorate that should not be taken for granted. In the elections of April 9 this year, parliamentary speaker Francisco "Lu-olo" Guterres, of the governing Fretilin party, came in as most-voted candidate with 27.89% of the vote. Because he did not receive the 50% needed to win outright, he will compete on May 9 against Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta, who polled 21.8%. Mr. Ramos-Horta is an independent who replaced Mr. Alkatiri when he resigned in June.

In an interesting twist, the fate of this election lies to some extent in the hands of a fugitive former army major, Alfredo Reinado, and his armed band of followers. The 41-year-old former head of military police is a hero to East Timorese youth, and to many others in the western districts where the Fretilin government stands accused of discrimination. In May 2006 he refused orders from pro-Fretilin army leaders to fight against 600 mutinous fellow-soldiers from the west known as "petitioners." Mr. Reinado and around 20 of his men instead took to the mountains with their guns. His saga continued throughout 2006, with an arrest by the Australian military peacekeeping force, a subsequent jailbreak and a series of press interviews from jungle hideouts.

Events escalated in February of this year, and in early March five of Maj. Reinado's men were killed in an attack on his base. The operation angered locals and in Dili his supporters lashed out. Traditionally pro-Australian, there was now an anti-Australian tinge to their rage. However, greatest anger was reserved for Mr. Gusmão and the Ramos-Horta government. Maj. Reinado urged supporters not to vote either for the Fretilin party or Mr. Ramos-Horta on April 9.

The story of Maj. Reinado, however, is only part of the picture. Another key issue involves Portuguese and Australian competition for postindependence influence, an issue linked to a drive for generational leadership change. The tragedy for East Timor is that during its most difficult years of postindependence growth, Australia and Portugal-two countries with grave responsibilities in its botched decolonization-have never combined forces for the country's good. During the troubles of 2006, hate blogs sprang up in Dili, of which the Portuguese "East Timor Online" was most read. Its contributors defended the Fretilin leadership and Mr. Alkatiri, accused Australia's Howard government of staging a covert coup to seize East Timor's oil riches, and fanned the flames of hatred for Australian soldiers. An anonymous entry of Oct. 26 reads: "All Timorese who love their country must unite in a grand popular movement (easterners and westerners) to drive out the Australians, who've invaded and occupied, to steal your sovereignty."

The bloggers' heroes are the Guarda Nacional Republicana (National Republican Guard), the militarized Portuguese police who patrol Dili streets alongside the Australians in an atmosphere of mutual dislike. These people do not reflect official Portuguese opinion but rather the widespread fear in the Portuguese community that if the Fretilin government falls decisively they will no longer be welcome. Lisbon has cultivated close ties with Fretilin leaders since Indonesia's 1999 withdrawal, in keeping with its foreign policy of developing cultural and commercial interests in all its ex-colonies, from Africa to Macau.

Many of Timor's younger generation are fiercely anti-Portuguese. They have nothing in common with Fretilin, and resent its choice of Portuguese as an official language. Educated under the Indonesian system and now unemployed, they see the language of the political elite as an instrument of their exclusion, and even tend to put Mr. Gusmão and Mr. Ramos-Horta in the same basket as former Prime Minister Alkatiri. In the current election approximately 100,000 first voters-those who turned 17 since 2001-are registered to vote, representing a fifth of the electorate.

On the Australian side, Prime Minister John Howard saw the 2006 violence as confirming an "arc of instability" to Australia's north threatening its well-being. Lumping East Timor with other potential "failed states" in the region, Canberra found new justification for regional intervention. His view was expressed on the abc's Asia Pacific program on Aug. 25, 2006 thus: "It is overwhelmingly in our interest to stop states failing and to deal with ... an incipient failure with problems in our region. I have very much in mind the examples of East Timor, the Solomons, the worry I continue to have about Papua New Guinea, Vanuuatu....The rest of the world rightly says 'this is Australia's patch.'"

The statement suggested that Australian foreign policy for this vastly different and complex nation remains as primitive as it was in the 1990s when Australia backed Indonesia's military occupation. An anti-Australian chorus followed from Fretilin. When eastern demonstrators traveled to Dili to support Mr. Alkatiri, they carried slogans describing Australia as "communist" (a catch-all phrase for anything bad) and calling on its troops to withdraw.

Timorese Horse-Trading

So who was on the ballot of the April 9 elections? There were eight registered candidates for the presidential office, ranging from Marxists to monarchists. On the fringes were candidates such as Avelino Coelho da Silva, a flamboyant Guevara-like personality who formed the Timorese Socialist Party (PST) from a split with Fretilin. He won 2.06% of the vote and has asked his supporters to vote for Mr. Ramos-Horta in the second round. Another fringe candidate was monarchist Manuel Tilman, who polled 4.09%. He plans to endorse Fretilin's Mr. Guterres.

The sole female candidate was Lucia Lobato, an articulate deputy for the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD). She polled 8.86% and joined veteran politician Francisco Xavier do Amaral in redirecting votes to Ramos-Horta for the run-off. The aged Mr. Amaral is a founding father of Timorese nationalism and of Fretilin, who now leads the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT). His candidature attracted 14.39%-double the ASDT's tally of 7.84% in the 2001 parliamentary elections.

Ms. Lobato and Mr. Amaral had a pact with Democratic Party (PD) candidate Fernando Lasama to give voting preferences to any one of this all-western trio who made it to the second round. Mr. Lasama, is seen as a political cleanskin and was expected to poll well enough to run against Mr. Guterres in the final round. He is unusual among former resistance operatives in never having belonged to Fretilin, and has youth backing. He served seven years in Jakarta's Cipinang prison, alongside Xanana Gusmão, and won the 1992 Reebok Human Rights Award.

Messrs. Lasama and Amaral took the lion's share of votes in the western districts, partly due to endorsement from Mr. Reinado. Nationwide, Mr. Lasama came in third with 19.18% (the Democratic Party won 8.72% in 2001). He alleged Fretilin rigged the vote against him in various districts of the territory. Six other candidates backed his claims, but evidence he presented was dismissed in court-just as his opponents dismissed him as a sore loser.

A meeting of Democratic Party members on April 25 decided to back Mr. Ramos-Horta for the second round on May 9, guaranteeing his status as front-runner. There was a price, however-the Democratic Party demanded that Mr. Ramos-Horta resume with Mr. Reinado, the rebel soldier. The request was accepted. Mr. Reinado and his armed band, it seems, were the backstage guarantors of the poll.

Winning first-round candidate "Lu-olo" (Mr. Guterres) has been the parliamentary speaker since 2001. He had an unbroken record of service with the guerrilla resistance during its 24 years in the bush, principally as a political commissar. He's seen as an austere figure who lacks the popular touch, but has the advantage of being a family man with two children, which Fretilin campaign propaganda emphasizes. His 27.89% in the first round made him most-voted, but it was a big slump compared to Fretilin's 2001 parliamentary result (57.37%). In the second round on May 9 he can expect to glean up to 7% more from votes redirected from Joao Carrascalão and Manuel Tilman, but will otherwise depend for victory on stronger Fretilin mobilization.

East Timor's best-known politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mr. Ramos-Horta served as foreign minister in the Alkatiri government after 2001, and replaced him as prime minister last year. He is an accomplished diplomat who spent the occupation years abroad representing East Timor at the U.N. He was a founder of Fretilin but left in the 1980s when Mr. Gusmão formed a nonparty resistance front. He remains close to Mr. Gusmão, but is a political chameleon who has defended Mr. Alkatiri.

Mr. Ramos-Horta's 21.81% vote was won with the help of two groups: first, the UNDERTIM party formed recently by charismatic ex-guerrilla L7 (Cornélio Gama), who mobilized a sweeping eastern network to back his childhood friend against Fretilin; and second, the dissident Fretilin faction Fretilin Mudança (Fretilin Reform), led by Foreign Minister José Luís Guterres.

Mr. Gusmão, who is forming a new party to contest the 30 June parliamentary elections, persuaded Mr. Mudança to back Mr. Ramos-Horta instead of fielding its own presidential candidate. (The outgoing president is planning to trade places with Mr. Ramos-Horta, by running for prime minister as head of the new party.) Some in the reformist group are disappointed, having expected their strategy would result in the Democratic Party's Mr. Lasama being in the run-off, rather than two first-generation nationalist politicians.

It has been an imperfect election so far, but the first-round trend towards closing the unhealthily large gap between government and opposition parties means it has rung in some useful change. If the second round proceeds normally, Fretilin may suffer a substantial reverse in its fortunes as the electorate punishes its arrogance. Both leading candidates have been in touch with the once-reviled Mr. Reinado to propose a voter-pleasing peace deal. President Gusmão's bid to trade places with Prime Minister Ramos-Horta instead of meeting a promise to retire as a pumpkin-farmer means the younger generation will continue to be frustrated by the behavior of older politicians, who they see as blocking meaningful change.

Ms. Jolliffe is a free-lance journalist working on the Living Memory Project, a video archive of testimony by East Timor's former political prisoners.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service


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