Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Election a test for East Timor's fragile democracy

  • 16 April 2007

East Timor’s recent presidential election initially brought forth some signs of hope for the fragile democracy. Opposition parties and prominent independents, including the interim Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta, ran vigorous campaigns for the largely ceremonial post of President against the ruling FRETILIN party’s candidate Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres.

There was a huge voter turnout for the election, and on polling day not a single incident of violence was reported. But as counting got underway last week there appeared to be irregularities as FRETILIN suddenly recorded a sudden jump in its vote amid claims that the ruling party had exerted influence on its cadres who worked for the electoral commission and at polling booths.

One observer, associate professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University said the jump was "statistically highly unusual, highly irregular". Support for the FRETILIN candidate jumped from 23 per cent to 28 per cent, ahead of Ramos-Horta on 23 per cent.

Claims of voter intimidation, however, appear to be overstated, given the peaceful environment that prevailed on polling day. And the East Timorese have previously defied threats of intimidation when in 1999 they defied the Indonesian-backed militias and voted to break ties with Indonesia.

A recount of all the ballots may be held in Dili in coming weeks after a formal complaint was lodged by five of the eight candidates. The claims of irregularities speak volumes about the state of East Timor’s democracy and what is in store for the all-important parliamentary elections to be held on June 30. Prior to the violence of April-June last year, which forced the FRETILIN prime minister Mari Alkatiri to stand down, East Timor looked destined to become a Singapore-style democracy—that is, one in which the ruling party is never voted out. Alkatiri had wanted to hold the election without UN observers, electoral law was being held back and he had proposed making defamation a criminal offence. If FRETILIN continues to tighten its grip, danger is still on the cards.

The position of President under East Timor’s constitution does not have executive powers. However, as the outgoing Xanana Gusmão demonstrated last year, it can have enormous moral authority. Now Gusmão has formed a new political party to run against the ruling FRETILIN party in the parliamentary elections. He is joined by the leading opposition force, the Democratic Party, which also strongly contested the April 9 election. Gusmão’s party, the National Council for Timorese Reconstruction,