Subject: Division in Timor needs to be healed

Also Securing peace a matter of mediation

Division in Timor needs to be healed

by Michael Leach

07/05/2007 03:12:04 PM EDT


WITH the national vote count for parliamentary elections close to final, East Timor is heading towards a new coalition government, led by former president Xanana Gusmao's CNRT (National Congress of the Timorese Reconstruction).

However, ruling party Fretilin has received a small swing on its presidential candidate's vote, and is set to remain the largest single party in Parliament, with close to one-third of the seats.

Fretilin leads CNRT by 29 per cent to 24 per cent. CNRT's strong showing in Dili accounted for the improvement in its early vote figures.

Running third is a coalition of two Western-based social democratic parties with 16 per cent. Though yet to formally commit, this grouping has previously indicated they will form a coalition with CNRT, and will likely be backed by some smaller parties to form a working parliamentary majority.

While President Jose Ramos Horta will follow the general convention of approaching the largest party in the Parliament first, Fretilin is not expected to be able to form government, which requires a party or coalition to command a majority in the 65-seat Parliament.

This result will see Fretilin out of office, but waiting in the wings should new coalitions prove unstable.

Fretilin won the 2001 elections with 57 per cent of the vote, and dominated district elections in 2005. However, this election signals the end of its domination of post-independence politics, and the emergence of a genuine multi-party system in East Timor.

It also suggests that the ruling party's handling of last year's crisis is at the root of its decline.

The rise of CNRT has also hit the more established opposition parties, with the much-fancied Democratic Party (PD) vote down to 12 per cent, despite a strong performance by leader Fernando ''Lasama'' de Araujo in the first presidential poll. A poorly organised parliamentary campaign did not help its chances in a strongly competitive environment of 14 parties.

Despite reports of minor irregularities, the election has been declared free and fair by all international observer groups. This is the threshold point for legitimacy, and while all parties are pledging to respect the outcome, many locals are justifiably nervous about the period after the declaration of results.

Once results are cleared, the opposition parties will enter a period of horse-trading to form a governing majority of 33, with ministerial positions at stake.

While Gusmao is favoured to take the position of prime minister, negotiations within the new coalition could yet see social democratic party leader Mario Carrascalao, a former governor of the province of East Timor during the Indonesian occupation, take the key role.

Whatever the outcome of these negotiations, the emergence of a multi-party democracy is a welcome sign for East Timorese political culture. While this development is to be celebrated, there are warning signs that a new coalition could prove fragile in the long term.

Though he has committed to a supporting CNRT, Carrascalao has publicly attacked it for harbouring political ''opportunists'', including figures expelled from Fretilin, and even some former supporters of integration with Indonesia.

The smaller party PD, which will also be critical to coalition stability, contains a minority faction that is supportive of Fretilin. While the dominant grouping is pro-CNRT, many feel aggrieved at the late entry of Gusmao, which seriously harmed their electoral performance.

Another problem is the continuation of regional bloc voting. Fretilin won the eastern districts, while CNRT swept the central districts around Dili and the western districts generally favoured other opposition parties. Healing these regional political divides will be a big challenge.

Despite these challenges, East Timor has substantial oil revenues to fund development projects, and with two key historical figures in Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao at the helm, prospects for a stable future look reasonable.

It is also true that East Timor's recent travails are common to post-conflict societies, and that political violence has generally been less pervasive than in some comparable developing nations.

With UN figures privately expressing doubts that another major international intervention would be supported, all East Timorese will be hoping this election signals a turning point to a stable, multi-party democracy.

Michael Leach is a research fellow at Deakin University, and was an international observer for the Victorian Local Government Association in the parliamentary elections.


Canberra Times

07 July 2007

Securing peace a matter of mediation

George Quinn

EAST Timor's parliamentary election passed off without major mishaps. After polls closed last Saturday, the nation's nightly TV newscast reported with an almost audible sigh of relief there had been only one security incident in Lissapat, about 60km south-west of Dili. I was there, and this is what happened.

Lissapat is a heart-wrenchingly poor village, about 6km up a jolting unsealed road from the township of Ermera. Clinging to steep mountain slopes and always shrouded in cold mist at twilight, it relies on the production of home-grown coffee for most of its meagre income.

Early on the morning of election day, a young man approached the polling station in Lissapat's primary school. A United Nations police officer noticed something strange about his behaviour and gave him a "friendly" bear hug.

Under his clothes he was carrying steel darts and a knife. East Timor's laws strictly forbid the presence of any arms in a polling station.

The man was instantly arrested, bundled into a police car and taken to the district capital of Gleno.

Word spread through the village. A menacing crowd of about 30 men soon gathered in front of the school.

UN police, led by an Australian police officer, tried to calm them, but they were angry and insistent: return the arrested man at once, or else.

The "or else" meant they would stop the transport of ballot boxes to the counting centre when polls closed later in the day.

They meant business and had a track record of involvement in violence.

For some time the area around Ermera has been tense. Rivalry between the political parties Fretilin and the Democratic Party has become entangled with passions produced by a maverick religious movement calling itself Colimau 2000. Tensions recently exploded in the neighbouring village of Urahou, leaving blackened stumps and charred piles of twisted corrugated iron to mark the places where half a dozen homes had been burned.

A phone call brought a respected Catholic priest, Father Adrian Ola, up the road from Ermera to mediate. He took the side of the local young men and demanded the offender be released. Bewildered, the Australian police officer in charge demanded to know why the priest did not help him uphold the law.

"It wasn't as simple as that," Father Ola told me later. "My immediate task was to prevent an outbreak of violence and help protect the legitimacy of the poll in Lissapat.

" Sure, the young man had been carrying weapons. He was wrong to do that, but an even greater wrong loomed. If he were not released, chances are houses would have been burned, people injured and the legitimacy of the poll in the village compromised. My first job was to keep the peace."

The stakes were high. As negotiations continued, heavily armed Australian troops from the International Stabilisation force stayed just off-stage, warily patrolling the road on the slope below the school. Eventually, the Australian police officer relented and ordered the release of the offender.

Responsibility for transporting him back to Lissapat would be, he said, in the hands of the priest. But to his fury Father Ola refused to do this. "You took him away, you bring him back."

Another round of prickly negotiations followed. Eventually, a compromise was worked out. The UN police would transport the prisoner from Gleno to Ermera, and the Church would take care of the leg from Ermera to Lissapat.

Later I talked to another UN police officer (not an Australian) who had been stationed in the tense nearby village of Urahou.

"If it had been me," he told me, "I would not have arrested the young man. Many men around here carry concealed weapons for personal security.

It would have been enough to confiscate his weapons at the perimeter of the polling station and return them after he had voted. End of problem."

But Father Ola had another agenda too. The arrested man and many of his supporters were members of Colimau 2000. Colimau 2000 has a veneer of Catholic piety, but relies on wacky rituals and beliefs, including belief that the local dead can be resurrected.

The movement is growing fast and has fragmented into several branches. Some of these are harmless, but others are heavily involved in political intimidation and violent crime.

The mainstream Church is concerned and is looking for ways to reach out to the wayward followers of Colimau. Hence the priest's conciliatory approach.

Thus, in one small corner of East Timor, a tiny but complex flashpoint was extinguished. Australian police and soldiers played a key role in initiating and resolving the incident.

For them, it was just another day at the office.

George Quinn heads the Southeast Asia Centre at the ANU. He was an international observer during East Timor's parliamentary election.

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