Subject: SMH/Hamish McDonald: E.Timor election will set the political balance

Sydney Morning Herald April 13 2002

Fretilin fighting tooth and nail to keep the Xanana republic at bay

The election will set the political balance, writes Hamish McDonald.

Photo: Heroic leader ... Xanana Gusmao addresses students, left, and, below, one of Xavier do Amaral's supporters in traditional headdress. AFP

A tropical cyclone has been hovering close to East Timor, dumping frequent rain on a mountainous island still in wet-season green and leaving officials wondering if the depression will move onshore just in time to disrupt tomorrow's presidential election.

Similarly, hints of potential trouble are emerging in the politics of this little nation as it moves into the final weeks before its formal independence on May 20.

The election itself is a predictable and mostly amicable affair. Xanana Gusmao, the heroic leader of armed resistance against the Indonesians, international celebrity, handsome and popular, is set to win by a large margin and become the new country's first head of state.

The only other candidate, Xavier do Amaral, is a much less vigorous figure - he came down with pneumonia early in the campaign and has a nervous twitch around his mouth - and comes from a more distant and contentious chapter of the former Portuguese colony's history.

In 1975 Mr Amaral was president of the independent state declared unilaterally by the Fretilin movement just 10 days before Indonesian forces overran Dili. Two years later his colleagues dumped him as party leader, he surrendered to the Indonesians, and then spent two decades in servitude to an Indonesian general.

Mr Amaral is modest enough about his reasons for standing. "If there was only one candidate there would not be a choice," he said on Thursday at a final election debate held at the newly reopened National University in Dili - at which he and Mr Gusmao posed with arms around shoulders and frequently agreed with each other's points.

But East Timor is far from becoming the "Xanana Republic" which many predicted. The real competition at the ballot is between Mr Gusmao and the Fretilin to which he once belonged and from which he now keeps a careful distance.

Fretilin has emerged with undisputed control of the organs of government from the process of drafting a constitution that has gone on while East Timor has been under a lavish ($2.2 billion) interim period of administration and protection by the United Nations.

The party's crossed identity with the resistance left it with the strongest grassroots penetration of any political grouping here after 1999, and it scooped up about 65 per cent of the seats in the constituent assembly elected last August.

Last month this assembly approved a new republican constitution weighted to parliamentary power, with a directly elected but largely symbolic president. The assembly then decided to transform itself into East Timor's first parliament for a full term - meaning that Fretilin will run the government for the next five years until elections.

Mr Gusmao is pitching himself explicitly as a countervailing power to the Fretilin machine. His objective as president, he said at Thursday's debate, would be "to look at those who rule and see that they can respond to the needs of the people".

He is said to have set his sights on a 90 per cent vote, a popular mandate that would give him immense moral ascendancy over the Fretilin government, likely to be led by the chief minister of the interim cabinet, Mari Alkatiri.

Conversely, Fretilin appears to be engaged in a whispering campaign designed to whittle down Mr Xanana's vote, to no more than the party itself received in August's constituent assembly ballot.

There have been door-knocking campaigns, reminding people that voting was not compulsory and suggestions that voters should "honour" both the 1975 proclaimer of independence and the resistance hero by ticking both images on the ballot paper - which would of course render the vote invalid.

Fretilin leaders have appeared on Mr Amaral's platforms and not been chastised. But a Fretilin MP who joined a Gusmao rally is being disciplined. The non-Fretilin politicians worry that Fretilin might show tendencies to drift into a one-party state. A question raising comparisons with the former Salazar fascist state in Portugal and the Soeharto regime in Indonesia drew the loudest applause from students at the presidential debate.

The party is instinctively secretive, and inclined to claim it knows what the people think and feel without having to ask them. Nor has Fretilin helped allay fears by inserting many of its 1975 revolutionary symbols into the new constitution.

The preamble states that May 20's ceremony is the international recognition of the independence Mr Amaral's Fretilin declared on November 29, 1975. The new country's name is Democratic Republic of East Timor, and its flag is a slight modification of the 1975 Fretilin flag - red, black and yellow with a white five-pointed star, a design which, as the conservative Timorese politician Joao Carrascalao points out, has nothing distinctly Timorese about it.

To be fair, the Constitution and Fretilin's contemporary platform is replete with commitments to pluralistic democracy and a free economy.

Mr Alkatiri, who is descended from a Yemeni settler and member of East Timor's tiny Muslim community, has shown himself a pragmatic, hard-working cabinet member in charge of economic affairs during the UN interregnum, working happily with international agencies and foreign aid donors.

Yesterday, Mr Alkatiri said he would be voting, but refused to say for whom and did not deny earlier reports quoting him saying he would post a blank ballot.

"Whoever wins the election will be president of this country and will be respected as that," he said. "And if I carry on in the government I will do my best to make sure there's a very sound relationship between the government, the president and the parliament."

Without the checks and balances of the new system, it could also be argued, Mr Gusmao could himself drift into a dictatorship or presidency-for-life, supported by a previously unsuspected capacity to raise funding from Asian business houses for his favourite projects.

A more ominous trend is the recent appearance of militia-style groups and martial arts societies in several regional centres, one supported by the 1975-era Fretilin central committee member Rogerio Lobato, which put themselves up as unrecognised former resistance members and seek affiliation to East Timor's new defence force.

As president, Mr Gusmao will be commander-in-chief of the two-battalion force trained from the former Falintil armed resistance, and its first chief, General Taur Matan Ruak, is fiercely loyal to him. In addition, Mr Gusmao heads the recognised resistance veterans association, numbering about 11,000 members, and has set up business ventures like a petrol distribution chain and a cement works to give them employment.

The militant groups are a challenge to this aspect of Mr Gusmao's authority. With the UN now cutting back the numbers of affluent international soldiers, police and officials, the thriving service economy of shops and restaurants catering to them will also contract, adding more unemployed to the ranks of potential recruits.

It is easy to see how much could go wrong for East Timor - then you remind yourself that they do not have to happen and that, so far, things have gone pretty well since the traumatic ending of the Indonesian occupation in 1999.

Leaders of parties that started a civil war in 1975 have been working together for two years in the interim administration, and before that in a national resistance council.

The population understands its rights. The Indonesian military has dropped its campaign to subvert independence, and the 200,000th refugee returned from West Timor this week, leaving only 60,000 there of those driven out by the Indonesians in 1999. Aid donors gather in Dili next week to discuss continued economic support.

In winning its independence, East Timor has been the little country that could. Tomorrow's election will effectively set its political balance for its first five years running itself - with prospects of the region's first case of European-style "cohabitation". The question is whether the tension will be destructive or creative.

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