Subject: ABC: Opposition parties unite against Fretilin

EAST TIMOR: Opposition parties unite against Fretilin

08/04/2003 20:46:59 | Asia Pacific Programs

As East Timor prepares to mark its first anniversary of independence, the nation's opposition parties have united to present a strong alternative to the government. The newly-formed platform of national unity is an attempt to combat what the opposition says is an undemocratic and corrupt government. It's a testing time for the players in the world's newest democracy.


DE MASI: At the heart of the issue is the Fretilin party of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, which controls 55 of the 88 seats in the Legislature. Joao Saldhana is the executive director of the East Timor Study Group, a Dili-based think-tank.He describes an out-of-touch and distant executive, unwilling to consult widely with the broad spectrum of parties in the Parliament.

SALDHANA: "The problem is when you come out with some good ideas, there's not much voice, I mean it's totally dominated by Fretilin and its quasi-allies, so together they make up 63 seats in parliament and they can push through whatever they want."

DE MASI: Eight opposition parties are signatory to the platform of national unity, an agreement to fight the government, being driven by the P-D, or Democratic Party. Spokesman John Boavida says Fretilin uses its numbers in parliament to stifle democratic processes, and multi-party participation.

BOAVIDA: "Now with the advantage Fretilin has, it gave the party the privilege of not consulting seriously the opposition parties, of not taking seriously under consideration the ideas and opinions of opposition parties, individuals or groups."

DE MASI; Before independence, President Xanana Gusmao had warned against a return to the one-party days under Indonesian rule. In an interview with Asia Pacific in late 2001, he said it was vital that all parties, large and small, had a voice in East Timor's new democracy.

GUSMAO: "Just imagine the assembly, one-party, the government, one party, how can we control, how can civil society control it? How can people know things are going well, or in a bad way, the wrong way? At least two parties to control each other, to tell people there are mistakes here, errors there. Each party has the right to have a place, a place to talk."

DE MASI: But according to the opposition parties, that hasn't eventuated. In most countries with a democratic system of government, opposition parties often grudgingly accept their voice will be muted if the ruling party enjoys a strong majority. But Joao Saldhana says there is a lingering taint of illegitimacy about the current administration.

SALDHANA: "It was chosen to write the Constitution. There was no mandate whatsoever to transform themselves into the National Parliament and run the country for the next five years. So that's always been in the minds of the opposition."

DE MASI: Helen Hill, a specialist in East Timorese politics at Melbourne's Victoria University says this argument is disingenuous. She says when the former United Nations Transitional Authority handed over power, the formation of the government had broad support, including from the opposition parties who anticipated winning a majority.

HILL: "Once Fretilin was elected, a movement started among the opposition parties to hold new elections, and had they held an election, there probably wouldn't have been a very different parliament elected, and in fact some of the smaller parties would not have been in the new Parliament."

DE MASI: The opposition parties have alleged a litany of grievances against the governing party, including corruption, nepotism, and social injustice. Fretilin strongly rejects the allegations, and says the opposition parties have failed to provide evidence for the claims. Parliamentary Secretary Francisco Carlos Soares says 13 parties have a presence in Parliament, and every decision is debated and approved democratically.

SOARES: "During the debate, if some political party presents a particular proposal, ideas or suggestion, if those are good enough , people will vote in favour, that's regardless of the majority party. But of course they are rejected if people think the idea is not good enough to be passed."

DE MASI: He says East Timor has all the fundamentals of democracy, a free media, freedom of movement and freedom of expression. He says without these, the opposition parties could never have organised or launched their new united position. But Victoria University's Helen Hill says it looks as though democracy in East Timor is still evolving.

HILL: " I think this illustrates that Timor is really just in the very infant stages of being a democracy and people haven't learnt the democratic culture that needs to go with the actual structures that they've created for themselves."

08/04/2003 20:46:59 | Asia Pacific Programs

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