Subject: Insults fly on eve of East Timor poll

Insults fly on eve of East Timor poll

April 7, 2007

The presidential election will be a verdict on Fretilin, Lindsay Murdoch reports from Dili.

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA is contemplating a possible new life writing books and travelling the world on the lecture circuit as 400 porters and 90 ponies this weekend carry ballot papers into East Timor's mist-shrouded mountain villages before a potentially explosive presidential election.

"If I observe my political demise on Monday I will have the freedom to write and be a private citizen, which I would enjoy immensely," said Mr Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1966 Nobel Peace Prize, who took over as Prime Minister amid violent upheaval last year.

More than 500,000 Timorese have registered to vote in Monday's election, East Timor's biggest test since it gained independence five years ago.

The people who defied intimidation and threats to vote for their freedom in 1999 will reveal what they think of the ruling Fretilin party's leadership which, its critics say, has been too slow in improving the lives of 1 million people, one-third of whom often do not get enough to eat.

The vote will also be first opportunity for Timorese to indicate whether they believe Fretilin should continue to run the country after the upheaval that left scores dead and forced more than 150,000 people from their homes, many of whom are still living in squalid refugee camps, afraid to return home.

Mr Ramos-Horta thinks he has only a one in three chance of winning the vote for the presidency, despite widespread speculation in the international media that the job was his for the taking.

He blames Fretilin, the party he helped form in the 1970s, for his possible defeat. "If I had not accepted the prime ministership I would win this election with more than 80 per cent … By trying to have a balancing act, saving this country, dealing with Fretilin, being nice to Fretilin, I have paid a price," he said.

Analysts in the capital, Dili, agree he is one of three frontrunners in the eight-candidate poll. Fretilin officials, meanwhile, are confident their candidate, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, will replace the founding President, Xanana Gusmao.

They insist that the events last year that led to their leader, Mari Alkatiri, being forced to step down as prime minister were part of a secretly planned coup to push Fretilin from power.

But Mr Ramos-Horta and Mr Guterres face a strong challenge from Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, head of the reformist youth-based Democratic Party, who seems to have attracted disgruntled Fretilin supporters.

Mr de Araujo is a former student activist who spent seven years in Indonesian jails and was one of the key organisers of East Timor's campaign for independence. Unlike the other frontrunners, he cannot be blamed for last year's crisis or for the disappointment that people's lives have not improved since winning the long struggle for independence.

"Lasama's party is the party of the future," Mr Ramos-Horta said.

Monday's vote will mark the start of months of uncertainty in East Timor, where 1600 United Nations police and 1200 Australian and New Zealand troops are deployed in case of trouble.

The poll outcome is not expected to be announced for several days, creating a volatile period when supporters of parties that suspect they have done badly could resort to violence. Even then, a clear-cut result is unlikely because the winner must get 51 per cent of the vote. The two candidates with the most votes will then contest a run-off election in early April.

Next, the East Timorese will choose a new parliament in a midyear election that will bare deep-seated hatred among the country's tiny Dili-based political elite. Mr Gusmao, backed by his own fledgling party, will take on Mr Alkatiri, who still runs Fretilin from the position of secretary-general, in a looming bitter fight for power and access to more than $1 billion of revenue from Timor Sea oil and gas, sitting in a New York bank.

The roots of the enmity between the country's two most powerful figures goes back to the 1980s, when Mr Gusmao took his Falintil anti-Indonesian guerillas out of Fretilin. Their differences are complex and partly ideological. Mr Alkatiri wants to see Fretilin remain the all-dominant ruling party; its central committee will probably nominate him to return to the prime ministership if it wins the election.

Mr Gusmao, who is still widely popular despite his lack of leadership during last year's crisis, insists he is the best person to unify the country. He wants to unlock the money that Mr Alkatiri's government invested in a petroleum fund, saying it is useless having money sitting in a bank while the poor go hungry and the young have no hope of employment. To win, Mr Gusmao needs support of the main opposition parties, including Mr de Araujo's Democratic Party, which has worked hard to build support where most voters live, outside Dili.

Mr Ramos-Horta said he would tell his supporters to vote for Mr Gusmao, his friend and political ally in the fight in which both sides are already trading insults.

Mr Alkatiri has branded members of Mr Gusmao's party as liars. Speaking to a small group of foreign journalists on Thursday, Mr Ramos-Horta unleashed an extraordinary attack on Mr Alkatiri, describing him as "Fretilin's worst enemy", who behaved in office as if he was leading a superpower instead of one of the world's smallest and poorest nations. If Fretilin did not install a new leader it would lose the general election and be reduced to an "insignificant" group within a year, he said.

After almost 12 months of mainly gang-based attacks in Dili, there have been only sporadic outbreaks of violence during presidential campaigning so far.

Four candidates complained yesterday of being disadvantaged by intimidation, violence and a delay in distributing passes for their scrutineers to monitor the vote. A veteran politician, Joao Carrascaloa, told journalists in Dili that election officials had been manipulating arrangements to favour Fretilin.

In a televised address yesterday Mr Ramos-Horta, Mr Gusmao and Dili's Catholic bishop, Alberto Ricardo, told the East Timorese to vote without fear for whoever they believed would be the best president.

With Australian combat troops continuing to hunt Alfredo Reinado in the central mountains, the rebel leader has been unable to disrupt campaign rallies. United Nations police are investigating sporadic attacks mostly outside Dili, as well as a raid on the National Electoral Commission headquarters in Dili on Wednesday night.

A UN-appointed Independent Electoral Certification Team has criticised a lack of preparation for the vote, raising the possibility it may not certify the result.

The three-member team, which includes the Australian election expert Michael Maley, has warned of problems that include candidate registration and delays in setting up the National Electoral Commission.

But the UN's special representative in Dili, Atul Khare, says he is confident the vote will be free and fair. He told journalists this week that the most important time would be the day after the elections, when "the loser must accept the result for the benefit of all Timorese".

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