Subject: Age: Fretilin receives lesson in democracy

The Age September 8, 2001

Fretilin receives lesson in democracy


There is a palpable mood of relief in East Timor this week after the election in which the country voted overwhelmingly in favor of the leftist nationalist party Fretilin.

The tension in the air has dissipated after the vote went ahead in an orderly manner nationwide. It is as though the population has passed a strenuous test, as indeed it has.

The day after the August 30 poll, in which representatives were elected to an 88-seat constituent assembly to draft East Timor's first constitution, became an unofficial public holiday. In the capital people strolled under the beachfront banyan trees as fishermen cast their nets from outrigger canoes bobbing gently in Dili Bay.

The mood of relief built as counting progressed. On Tuesday night there was a spontaneous demonstration for the second anniversary of the militia violence that followed the 1999 independence referendum. Dili's streets were suddenly illuminated with hundreds of candles as people gathered in small groups to pray for the dead and give thanks for their liberty. The scene underlined the stark difference between this ballot and that earlier one.

The first had been held under the menacing presence of Indonesian army and militia guns. This time, 8000 armed United Nations peacekeepers stood by, and the result was an unconditional success for the UN transitional administration.

The results announced by the UN on Wednesday gave Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, a majority of 57.3per cent of the vote, short of the 60per cent Fretilin needed to draft a new constitution on its own. The youthful Democratic Party finished second, with 8.7 per cent, followed by the Social Democrats led by former East Timor governor Mario Viegas Carrascalao, with 8.1 per cent.

A surprise result was that of the Timorese Social Democratic Association, which gained 7.8 per cent, drawing mainly on indigenous support among Mambai-speaking people in central mountain areas for Xavier do Amaral, the aged founding president of Fretilin.

The tension in the lead-up to the vote resulted from uncertainty about Fretilin's intentions. For many, its campaign had an aggressively triumphant note.

Secretary-general Mari Alkatiri asserted that the party had a "guaranteed" victory of up to 88 per cent and at one point he stated that after the elections Fretilin would "sweep the earth" to correct the ills besetting East Timor. The phrase evoked disquieting memories of the scorched earth policies by militias in 1999. It aroused fears that Fretilin might behave in an authoritarian manner if it won by a landslide, although Mr Alkatiri denied it had any sinister meaning.

He also said he had no interest in sharing power with others, although the UN had said it wanted to bring all major parties into a national unity government. Mr Alkatiri said Fretilin wanted instead an "inclusive" government, by which it would hand-pick people from other parties to join its cabinet. Liberals within the party were clearly uncomfortable with both stands.

UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello now has the sensitive task of forming a cabinet that will give voice to divergent political views. Eight other small parties, including the pro-Indonesian Timorese Nationalist Party, also won seats in the assembly.

The fact that Fretilin fell far short of its predicted landslide has strengthened Mr de Mello's hand. But it has not altogether changed Fretilin's position that its undeniable mass support gives it a right to govern on its own terms and to choose the cabinet.

Mr Alkatiri has threatened to boycott parliamentary activity if he does not get his way, but it is a threat that will probably meet some opposition within his own party, and which Mr de Mello is no doubt taking into account in the approach he takes.

Besides, Mr Alkatiri is an eminently pragmatic and sensible man in practice, despite his flair for demagoguery.

Party critics are likely to chastise him over Fretilin's performance in the coffee-growing district of Ermera, which represented more than 40,000 votes.

A recent reorganisation of its central committee incorporated people who are considered by Fretilin liberals to have been prominent Indonesian collaborators. These include Francisco Kalbuadi, adopted son of the late Dading Kalbuadi, the Indonesian general who led the 1975 attack on Balibo in which five journalists were killed. (His supporters within Fretilin say Mr Kalbuadi may have consorted with Indonesian intelligence agents, but that he secretly gave considerable financial support to the resistance.)

More controversial was the appointment of the formerly pro-Indonesian leader Tomas Goncalves as Fretilin's campaign manager in Ermera, where he had been bupati (district head) during the Indonesian occupation.

Since 1999 Mr Goncalves has been denouncing Indonesian actions in East Timor, having defected after the military insisted he lead one of the militia groups. He was deeply unpopular during his term as bupati and in Ermera Fretilin voters defected in droves to the Democratic Party or the Social Democrats.

In the event, Fretilin won the count in Ermera, but with 31.9 per cent, while the combined votes of the Democratic Party and the Social Democrats, which consider themselves fraternal parties, were over 40per cent. There were similar problems in the Oecussi enclave, where Fretilin polled only 38.6 per cent, again dragging its percentage down.

These facts will strengthen the hand of party moderates and assist Mr de Mello in his difficult negotiations. By Thursday when results were announced, a series of top-level meetings was under way in Dili involving World Bank officials and senior members of the UN administration. Meetings with party leaders over the shape of the new government also began.

"The result makes it easier for UNTAET to form a representative cabinet," one Western diplomat said. "Fretilin can't now expect to have things all its own way. Sergio Vieira de Mello is enough of a consummate diplomat to make things work."

Among the most disappointed politicians were leaders of the newly formed Democratic Party led by former political prisoner Fernando de Araujo and Constancio Pinto, a survivor of the Santa Cruz massacre. The party is identified with nationalist leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, who will stand for president after the constitution is drafted. Party supporters had expected to stem the Fretilin tide with a much higher percentage than their 8.7 per cent, but they are likely to combine forces in the new parliament with the Social Democrats, in a bloc representing more than 16 per cent.

"Fretilin should be proud of the existence of other political parties," Mr Pinto said. "They say they brought democracy to Timor, so they should accept them and not feel so threatened."

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