Subject: SCMP: East Timor: Poll tests new nation's credibility

South China Morning Post August 30, 2001


Poll tests new nation's credibility

Hoped-for display of political maturity and absence of violence to augur well for independence


Photo: Warm welcome: Independence leader Xanana Gusmao, left, is greeted by a villager in Sibuni, East Timor, yesterday. He talked to inhabitants about democracy and voting ahead of today's parliamentary elections. Agence France-Presse photo

Two years to the day since East Timorese chose independence from Indonesia, the people of this tiny, impoverished territory go to the polls once more, this time to chose their own government.

About 410,000 people will be casting ballots at 248 polling stations across the territory to choose a Constituent Assembly today. This body will draft a constitution for East Timor, a necessary precursor to East Timor achieving the independence it lost to centuries of Portuguese colonisation and a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation.

The composition of the 88-member assembly elected today will also help determine the make-up of a new transitional cabinet of East Timor's administration. Unlike its predecessor, the National Council, the new cabinet is to be composed entirely of East Timorese leaders who will be appointed by the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Sergio Vieira de Mello, on September 15.

At stake today is not only the future of East Timor's 16 political parties, but also the political credibility of East Timor as an independent nation.

Observers, potential donors and investors are hoping voters will display political maturity and an aversion to violence which could help put an end to the vicious manipulation of East Timor in the past.

So far, the experts agree the prognosis is good. The campaign period was peaceful and the rallies disciplined. The United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor has recorded no major incidents of political violence and some staff admit privately only a fear that the results may spark conflict.

The front-running party, Fretilin, is coasting on its role as the resistance force against Indonesian occupation and claims it will win up to 100 per cent of the vote.

"Our estimates are much lower than that, we're down to a minimum of 50 per cent for Fretilin, and that's where we might see some trouble when results come in around September 4 or 5," said a UN source.

This is perhaps the most closely watched election in many years. Hundreds of international observers have already fanned out across the territory from groups such as the Carter Centre and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to the official diplomatic observer missions from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and many more.

Of particular interest is the presence of a 10-strong election observer team from Indonesia - the country blamed most for the wretched state of East Timor's physical, economic and emotional life. These observers come from the few NGOs such as Solidamor based in Jakarta, which for years risked Indonesian government repression as they sought to publicise their country's behaviour in East Timor.

International observers will be checking the ability of local election staff, led in each district by a UN electoral officer, to process ballots and secure the sanctity of a secret vote. Logistical problems in compiling voter registration lists may create problems as people appear to vote but find their name is not on the list.

The UN transitional administration's credibility is also on the line, even though this election is only one part of a comprehensive effort to rebuild a territory reduced to ruins when the Indonesian military conducted its scorched-earth departure from East Timor after the 1999 pro-independence ballot.

The traditional expense and bureaucracy, and the creation of a vastly inequitable dual economy that accompanies every UN mission, will face even more stringent criticism if its preparations for today's ballot prove faulty. Observers say the bulk of work in preparing voters for today's vote has fallen on the shoulders of more lowly paid UN volunteers who have often established far closer ties to local communities across East Timor. At stake too, is the future of the 50,000 to 80,000 East Timorese refugees still stuck in camps across the border in Indonesia's West Timor.

The Indonesian Government's failure to put an end to militia control of the camps, and the militia murders of three UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff in Atambua, West Timor last September, derailed an internationally recognised process of refugee returns, thereby preventing these people from having a say in the shape of their future state.

August Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from