Subject: GLW/E.Timor: Elections mark new step toward independence

Green Left Weekly, Australia's socialist newspaper Issue #462August 29, 2001

EAST TIMOR: Elections mark new step toward independence


The August 30 election for East Timor's Constituent Assembly signifies an important step towards the conclusion of the United Nations transitional administration. As the UN starts to gradually wind back operations and hand over more direct control to the East Timorese, new and old social tensions are coming to the fore.

The election campaign period has been in many respects largely uneventful. Most of the media coverage has focused almost exclusively upon the inevitability of a Fretilin victory or the threat of violence by either pro-Jakarta militia or “dissident” groups within East Timor. The attitude of the populace to the whole process has been a combination of indifference and uncertainty.

Party rallies in Dili and other towns have not attracted large numbers — certainly nothing like the mobilisations that took place prior to the 1999 referendum or those that followed the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The low turn out for rallies and meetings can partly be attributed to limited funding and resources for parties.

A key factor behind the lack of enthusiasm from most voters is the limited information they have about the parties or any track record by which to judge most of them, except perhaps the longer established parties like Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union. But even these two parties have changed considerably since they formed 27 years ago.

Overall there is very little to distinguish the contesting parties from each other. In many cases their platforms or policies are identical. Most espouse support for a “free-market” economy. The only exception is the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) which has consistently focused on developing a base among workers and the rural poor through establishing peasant cooperatives and campaigning for better wages and conditions for East Timorese employed by the UN and private businesses. The 5000 strong rally the PST organised in Dili on August 25 reflects its growing influence.

Support for Fretilin — the main party associated with the pre-1975 independence struggle — appeared to have strengthened just prior to the election. There have, however, been concerns raised over the way Fretilin conducted its campaign activity in many districts and public statements made by some of its leaders.

The independent election Media Mediation Panel (MMP) released a statement on August 20 questioning the use by Fretilin members of the tetum words dasa rai, which means “to sweep the ground”. Fretilin leaders said they would “sweep” the country clean after the August 30 elections.

The statement read in part: “What concerns the MMP in this context is that the use of the term `dasa rai‘ is being interpreted by many observers as an act of intimidation that is clearly out of step with the Pact of National Unity signed by most political parties, including Fretilin, on July 8. We are concerned that an atmosphere of suspicion and intimidation may be building in the closing weeks of the election campaign leading to a rise in fear and tension among the people.”

New constitution Once it convenes, the Constituent Assembly will debate and draft a new constitution and, therefore, decide what form of government East Timor should have — whether a presidential or a parliamentary system. It will determine if and when elections for a president will take place and whether the assembly itself will become the new legislature.

“The PST has called for fresh elections next year for the formation of a legislature. The Constituent Assembly only has the mandate to discuss the constitution”, PST secretary general Avelino da Silva told Green Left Weekly. Da Silva said several other parties supported new elections. “The PST does not support a presidential system ... there must be a separation of powers between the executive and legislature.”

The nature and powers of the president has already been an issue of considerable debate, though one muddied by the role and attitude of Xanana Gusmao.

Gusmao has taken an increasingly low profile since the dissolution of the National Council of Timorese Resistance earlier this year and has regularly expressed a desire not to be president. On the other hand, he has been continually held up by the UN and Western governments, in an almost patronising way, as the only figure capable of uniting the East Timorese.

Despite his expressed reluctance to be involved in politics, Gusmao has accepted a presidential-like appointment by UN administrator Sergio de Mello as head of an “oversight” Political Commission for the new government. According to de Mello, the commission will not be part of the “ministerial structure, but above it, answering to a possible coordinating minister or chief minister... or to me, the transitional administrator...”

De Mello told Lusa news service on August 21 that the commission will oversee “all areas of government”, with a special focus on “medium and long-term development strategy”.

On August 25, Gusmao finally announced that he would accept candidacy for president. Much hope is being pinned on the ability of Gusmao and the members of the Constituent Assembly to steer East Timor through the period of preparation prior to full self-rule. “Everyone wants to be associated with a success story”, remarked Sarah Cliffe, head of the World Bank operations in East Timor.

Whatever form of government evolves after the August 30 election it is likely to come under increasing and competing pressures, both domestically and internationally. From the East Timorese masses, expectations will increase for their representatives to adequately deal with social problems such as mass unemployment and land reform.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN have urged “responsible” and “realistic” social and economic policies. The Australian government has been in the lead of foreign governments making similar calls, in particular in relation to the new Timor Sea agreement and the current dispute between East Timor and giant US-based Phillips Petroleum Company.

Dispute over gas Phillips announced in mid-July that unless it received an assurance from the East Timorese that the tax regime would not increase, it would suspend the construction of a 500-kilometre pipeline from the Bayu-Undan natural gas field in the Timor Sea to Darwin.

Phillips claims that the proposed 4% tax increase by East Timor will severely cut into its profit margins. Any slight reduction in Phillips' profits though is inconsequential when compared to the immense benefit the increase in revenue from Timor Sea gas production will have for East Timor's impoverished economy. East Timor's per capita GDP is now estimated at US$325.

East Timor is a financial flea in comparison to Phillips. Philips' second quarter net operating income of US$601 million is almost 10 times East Timor's projected budget expenditure for the entire 2001-02 financial year.

Despite stating that this is a dispute solely between East Timor and Phillips, the Australian government has clearly sided with Phillips. Foreign minister Alexander Downer does not believe East Timor has the right to renegotiate fairer terms, but that the East Timorese should “reaffirm their earlier commitment regarding the fiscal and taxation policies that would apply to companies”.

Industry and resources minister Senator Nick Minchin has continued to claim that there is a threat to Australia's domestic gas supply because the East Timorese dare to assert sovereign rights over their own resources.

The Australian government’s position on the Timor Sea dispute is consistent overall with the pro-big business policies implemented by both the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. While both may have adjusted their position at times in accordance with changing political circumstances (such as during the upsurge of mass protest calling for UN military intervention to stop the post-referendum slaughter in 1999), Labor and the Liberals have a thoroughly bipartisan approach guided by the central goal of aiding Australian business interests.

The support given by the Howard government and the ALP to the new military-backed government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia is evidence of this, as is the rejection in the Senate on August 21 of a motion by Greens Senator Bob Brown calling for the government to support the creation of an international war crimes tribunal on East Timor and for such a tribunal to cover the whole period of the Indonesian occupation.

Labor Senator Peter Cook won the support of Coalition senators to amend the motion to back the Indonesian government’s own investigations and to note the UN Security Council’s lack of willingness to set up an international war crimes tribunal on East Timor.

Brown told the Senate: “I don't accept this amendment because it is simply saying, well, this matter should be left to Jakarta and it should be circumscribed to the events surrounding the referendum in East Timor”. 

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