Subject: UCAN: Catholic Church, NGOs discuss draft proposals for East Timor

UCAN: Catholic Church, NGOs discuss draft proposals for East Timor elections



BAUCAU, East Timor (UCAN) ­ The Catholic Church in East Timor has cooperated with volunteer organizations to facilitate discussion of proposals for running the country's first general election as an independent nation.

Thirty participants from political parties, church organizations, members of parliament, district administrations and civil society attended the Aug. 23 discussion in Baucau, 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) east of Dili.

The meeting was organized by Baucau Diocese's Commission for Peace and Justice in conjunction with East Timor People's Action, an (nongovernmental organization) NGO that monitors and analyzes government policies, CAUCUS, a local organization dealing with civic education, and FONTIL, the East Timor NGO forum.

East Timor is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election in the middle of next year. Voters will vote for a party, and representation in the single house of parliament will be based on the percentage of the vote a party wins, the actual representatives chosen in accordance with the party's prepared list of candidates. People also will vote for a president.

However, there is no law to regulate the electoral process. The current government was elected in U.N.-supervised elections on Aug. 30, 2001, nine months before East Timor achieved full independence on May 20, 2002.

Two draft electoral laws have been put forward, one by the ruling Fretilin party and the other by the opposition parties. Fretilin's draft has 14 pages with eight chapters and 77 sections, while the opposition draft runs 31 pages with six chapters and 67 sections.

Joao Goncalves, a member of parliament from the opposition Social Democrat Party, told discussion participants that one of the main differences in the drafts is the gender makeup of the legislative assembly.

"Fretilin wants at least one woman in the first five candidates (on the party list), without insisting on more women candidates. The opposition wants at least one woman among every five candidates," he told UCA News Aug 29.

Goncalves also objects to the Fretilin proposal of a 5 percent threshold, according to which a party that gets less than 5 percent of the total vote would not be entitled to any parliamentary seats. Based on his estimate of 400,000 votes to be cast, a party would need 20,000 votes to be in parliament. This would make it "very difficult for small parties to have even one representative in the parliament," he said. "What we want is proportional representation in parliament."

Cipriana Pereira, a Fretilin member of parliament, defended her party's draft. Nevertheless, she described the discussion as an initial way for various organizations and society in general to offer opinions and suggestions about the draft laws. Regarding the Fretilin draft, she said "there are some sections that could be altered, but some cannot.

Father Deonisio Sarmento, coordinator of the youth ministry in Baucau, raised a concern about where the ballots would be counted. The draft from Fretilin calls for all votes cast within a district to be transported to the district capital and counted there, while the opposition's draft says votes should be counted immediately after balloting to avoid manipulation.

Father Sarmento spoke in favor of votes being counted in the presence of voters and observers just after the balloting.

Like Pereira, the priest affirmed that discussions like the one in Baucau could help find alternatives that are acceptable to all. The church and civic groups also have concerns about the law's implementation, he said, maintaining that the most important thing is that it should be just and transparent.

Cecilio Caminha Freitas of East Timor People's Action told UCA News it was important to involve the church since it has a lot of influence in society. Catholics form more than 90 percent of East Timor's 1 million people.

Albino da Silva Savier, a representative of former guerrillas who fought for independence from Indonesia, saw the discussion as a good opportunity for political leaders to hear what people at the grassroots level had to say.

"I'm very happy to be involved in such a discussion. This is such a good thing for this country," he told UCA News Aug. 23.

Communal division and tension in East Timorese society were revealed recently during several weeks of clashes, looting and arson in which at least 20 people died and 100,000 were displaced. The violence began after former prime minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed roughly a third of the army. The dismissed soldiers were from the eastern part of the county and had complained of systematic bias against them in the military. Alkatiri resigned under pressure on June 26.

The U.N. Security Council on Aug. 25 authorized a mission of 1,600 international police and 34 military liaison officers to help stabilize the fledgling country ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections.

East Timor law requires that parliament have a minimum of 52 and a maximum of 65 seats, with members elected by popular vote to five-year terms. However, for its first term of office, parliament was composed of 88 members on an exceptional basis.

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