Subject: Guardian: East Timor's hero rises to the challenge

The Guardian Monday August 27, 2001

East Timor's hero rises to the challenge

Resistance leader to run for president as new country prepares for its first elections

John Aglionby in Dili, East Timor

The resistance hero, Jose Alexandre 'Xanana' Gusmao, ended months of speculation at the weekend by announcing that he would run for the presidency of East Timor when it gains full independence next year. Mr Gusmao made the decision reluctantly, after all 16 parties contesting the first ever free election this Thursday said he would be their preferred candidate in the forthcoming presidential ballot.

"Realistically, he's the only choice," said Ajio Perreira, a vice-president of the Social Democratic party (PSD). "And he will probably make a good president because he doesn't want to do it."

The members of the assembly to be elected on Thursday have much work to do. They will write the country's constitution and probably become its first parliament during the takeover from the UN administration that has been running East Timor since Indonesian troops and their militias almost destroyed it following the 1999 referendum. They must also prepare for the presidential ballot.

Explaining all this is no easy task in a country where 53% of all adults are illiterate, according to the UN. But what the East Timorese possess in abundance is enthusiasm for the democratic process.

Carlos Pintu, a former soldier and resistance fighter, is typical. Even though he has a voter registration card, he had walked two miles to the polling station in scorching heat just to confirm that that he really was on the roll.

"It's very important that I am able to vote," he said. "I had to come and check." He admitted that he had no idea what he would be voting for. "I'm not really quite sure what I'll be choosing,"he said. "I just know it's for the future of our nation."

While up to a third of the 380,000 electors could be as confused as Mr Pintu, the voters are united over what they understand by a democratic election. "We want the right to express ourselves freely, to choose our own leaders and to live in peace," Antonio Saldana, a student, said as he joined 2,000 others watching a debate between the leaders of the political parties.

For a nation living in fear 12 months ago because of repeated incursions by armed militias from Indonesian West Timor, the peacefulness of the campaign has taken everyone by surprise. Fewer than a dozen confrontations have been reported and no one has been seriously injured.

But this is easy to explain, according to Sergio Vieria de Mello, the head of the UN administration. "Four hundred and fifty years of colonial rule plus the invasion in 1975 and 24 years of Indonesian occupation have taught very clearly the East Timorese what democracy is not," he said. "That's why they're behaving in such a mature and sensible way in this electoral campaign."

This maturity will really be tested when the results are announced, according to Jose Neves, of Renetil, one of the leading poll watchdogs. "I don't think the people will express their dissatisfaction at losing without being pushed by the leadership," he said. "So it all goes back to how the leadership accepts defeat and that will be the next benchmark of how mature a nation we are."

The party leaders are all making the right noises. "We will accept the result whatever it is," said Mari Alkatiri, the driving force behind Fretilin (The East Timorese Revolutionary Front), the party which declared independence following the Portuguese withdrawal in 1974 and ruled for less than two weeks before Indonesia invaded.

"We believe in consensual government that is based on competence, not on who does best in the election."

Few people doubt that Fretilin, the party which sym bolised the struggle against Indonesia, will win. The great unknown is how much by. Mr Alkatiri is confident of winning 70-75 of the 88 seats in the assembly, but others are not so sure.

"Voters might not know what they are voting for but they know who they are voting for," Mr Perreira said. "Fretilin is not the party it was back in the 1970s and the people are aware of that."


He believes that while Fretilin has the most sophisticated party structure this will not guarantee a resounding majority.

"There are a lot of other forces interplaying such as the traditional chiefs, the church and now the United Nations," he said. "I would be very surprised if one party gets 60% of the vote."

The PSD and the Democratic Party (PD) are likely to be fighting it out for second place. PSD is led by Mario Carrascalao, a governor in the early 1990s.

PD was formed two months ago by young political activists, many of whom have either returned from exile or left Fretilin. The PD's chairman, Fernando de Araujo, said: "This shows that the young people of East Timor are looking for someone to express their aspirations."

Mr de Mello, who will remain in charge until independence, says he will form the next transitional government based on the election results. "What I have in mind is appointing a chief minister who will run the government on a day to day basis," he said. "I will no longer chair cabinet meetings because this final phase is a rehearsal for independence."

The UN presence will also be scaled back, although hundreds of international advisers are expected to stay on for several years after independence, expected to be in the second quarter of next year.

How long the current wave of optimism lasts remains to be seen but the signs are promising. There is no significant external security threat and everyone appears determined to put the nation first.

"We have endured so much pain and suffering for so long we have nothing to gain by fighting among ourselves," Mr de Araujo said.

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