Subject: AU: East Timorese prepare for election

The Australian East Timorese prepare for election

By Don Greenlees


AT an outdoor class in the fishing village of Baikiri, Juliao Mausiri contends with the mid-afternoon heat and tries to excite the interest of his listless pupils. Standing in the shade of an old tree, he asks: "What is a democratic election?"

Some of the young men look down and shuffle their feet in the soft, grey dirt. An old woman and two young girls stare towards the gently lapping waters of the Wetar Strait. Silence.

A little more prodding, and answers slowly emerge. Vitorino Soares, a 19-year-old high school student with sleepy eyelids, suggests the definition is voting for a party without being forced.

"Was the referendum that gave East Timor independence democratic?" Mausiri persists.

"No," says Soares, "because people were living under intimidation and threat."

Two days from now, the East Timorese people will have their first taste of real democracy. The territory's 420,000 voters will elect a parliament that will draft a national constitution and pave the way for a declaration of independence early next year.

Many East Timorese have only a vague idea of what the August 30 elections are about and what parties are in the race. They struggle to describe the concept of democracy. But they are very clear on one thing: they know what democracy is not.

During his 60-minute civic education class, Mausiri, an activist from a non-government youth organisation, hears over and over again from the 20 people of this village, a few kilometres east of Dili, that the elections must be free from coercion and violence.

Says Mausiri, who was part of the unarmed resistance to Indonesian rule: "For 24 years we spilt our blood. We don't want any more fighting."

Two years after the referendum that set East Timor on the path to independence, but left the territory a smouldering ruin, the people are determined to pursue democracy in peace.

They have many bitter lessons on which they can draw. The 1974 civil war waged between some of the progenitors of today's political parties, and which gave the excuse for Indonesia's invasion, has cast a long shadow over these elections. But since the start of campaigning, the vow to avoid a return to the violent past has been fulfilled with remarkable success.

Despite one or two incidents of rock throwing and isolated claims of harassment, competition between the 16 parties over 88 seats in the so-called Constituent Assembly has been free of physical conflict.

Says East Timor's Foreign Minister and Nobel peace laureate, Jose Ramos Horta: "I have travelled around the country and spoken to thousands of people. My only message is no pressure, no threats, no fear, no violence ­ it will discredit this country."

East Timor's politicians and UN observers are confident such messages from political and community leaders, and a popular demand for peace, will be heeded on polling day.

But beyond the election, the harmony may be a little more strained. From the large field of political parties, most observers believe just one will dominate ­ the famed resistance organisation Fretilin.

The debate is not over whether the one-time left-wing revolutionary party will triumph, but over the size of its majority. "We will win 80 to 85 per cent at least," boasts Mari Alkatiri, one of Fretilin's two key leaders.

Jim Della-Giacoma, East Timor representative of the US-based National Democratic Institute, concurs that Fretilin, as the party that was seen to consistently keep the flame of resistance alive, is an easy frontrunner.

"Fretilin is clearly the most popular, best organised and best funded, and that is going to translate into the ballot box," he says.

Fretilin's strongest challenge is likely to come from the Social Democratic Party, headed by former governor Mario Carrascalao, and the Democratic Party, headed by a former leader of the civilian resistance, Fernando de Araujo. They are certain to be joined in the assembly by a large number of the smaller parties and Independents.

The UN has set a low bar for entry into the Constituent Assembly ­ about 5000 votes will get a candidate elected.

The likely dominance of Fretilin worries some of East Timor's would-be democrats.

Xanana Gusmao, who on Saturday declared he would seek election as East Timor's first president, has stayed out of the election campaign for the assembly. A former Fretilin leader, he resigned from the party in an effort to unify resistance to Indonesian rule ­ a decision that has left some lingering bitterness among old comrades.

Moreover, Gusmao has sent subtle signals he does not favour a crushing Fretilin victory. Former top Gusmao aides in the now-disbanded National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) mostly joined Carrasacalo's Social Democratic Party.

And Gusmao has attended only one party political function ­ a Democratic Party rally, much to the chagrin of Fretilin leaders.

Alkatiri will say only that Gusmao's attendance was "very unfortunate".

But one close Gusmao adviser argues: "Xanana is very aware that the voters are going to be emotional and Fretilin will have a majority. He is conscious that would be bad for East Timor. There are still very radical elements in Fretilin."

The first political battleground, when the outcome of the election is declared 10 days after voting, will be the constitution. Fretilin has already prepared a detailed document that with a two-thirds majority it could ram through the Constituent Assembly without consultation.

Under the Fretilin model, East Timor would have a strong parliament, which would choose a prime minister and form a government, and a directly elected president of limited authority.

With its rivals pushing for a constitution that delivers a more powerful president, Fretilin's willingness to be flexible will be an early sign of the direction of East Timorese politics.

"The really contentious issue will be the system of government," says Milena Pires, one of the leading candidates for the Social Democratic Party.

Indeed, Gusmao had earlier told associates he would not be interested in being president if he were simply to be a "ribbon cutter".

But there are some signs Fretilin is trying to be moderate. Many have been concerned that if Fretilin won a big majority it would quickly push for independence before East Timor was ready.

The party places great symbolic importance on November 28, the anniversary of its 1975 declaration of independence. Alkatiri, a strong candidate to be the first prime minister, offers a compromise: the constitution will name November 28 as Independence Day but East Timor may not formally receive its independence until April or May ­ the UN's preferred timetable.

Alkatiri and other political leaders believe Fretilin has altered in other significant ways, abandoning its socialist platform for a market economy with a conscience.

A sign of the times: on one recent afternoon, a sleek new Mercedes Benz is parked at Fretilin headquarters, flying the Fretilin flag from the antenna.

A business fundraiser at a Chinese restaurant in Dili three weeks ago reportedly put $100,000 in Fretilin coffers.

"Fretilin is much more tolerant and democratic than it was 20 years ago," says Ramos Horta, a founding Fretilin central committee member who has quit the party.

"Fretilin has changed. It is fundamentally social-democratic oriented. Marxism is not in the platform any more."

Not everyone is convinced. The smaller parties still worry that Fretilin, with a big enough majority, could squeeze them out and frame a "political" constitution that underwrites its hegemony. Isolated acts of intimidation, which the smaller parties blame on Fretilin, are illustrative of "certain tendencies", according to Pires.

In the small village of Baikiri, Fretilin support is overwhelming. Marcus Fernandez, a young man with a scorpion tattooed on his neck, predicts Fretilin will win "100 per cent" of the seats.

But local activist Mausiri has a message for the political leaders as they wrestle over the future of the country in the months ahead.

"We have already spilt enough blood. If there is any more fighting, the people will arrest them," he says.

Don Greenlees is The Australian's Jakarta correspondent.

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