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Election a test for East Timor's fragile democracy

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Election a test for East Timor's fragile democracyEast 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.

Election a test for East Timor's fragile democracyGusmão’s party, the National Council for Timorese Reconstruction, bears the same Portuguese acronym as the multi-party resistance council that he founded in 1988. The poet-warrior whose time in a Jakarta prison earned him the title of 'Asia’s Nelson Mandela' resigned from FRETILIN in December 1987 in order to establish a multi-party umbrella movement, which became known as CNRT, the National Council of Timorese Resistance. Gusmão believed that the left-leaning FRETILIN party had cruelled East Timor’s independence aspirations from the very beginning; its small but vocal Marxist faction and policy of non-alignment with Indonesia’s foreign policy sparked fears in Indonesia, the United States and Australia that an independent East Timor would become a satellite of communist countries, most notably China.

When independence arrived the Alkatiri government was dominated by exiles that had lived in communist Mozambique during the 24-year occupation. While espousing free market principles, the government was pre-occupied with communist-style centralization and control. Last year FRETILIN showed its true colours when it invited to its party congress representatives from the communist parties of China, Portugal, Cuba and Mozambique.

The central failing of FRETILIN was its inability to spend the national budget and deliver benefits to the long-suffering Timorese. In the 2005-06 Budget every category of government spending was underspent except one—ministerial travel. Late last year the FRETILIN-dominated parliament passed a law awarding a long list of perks to former ministers, including a lifelong salary, car, driver and overseas travel.

Gusmão and the other opposition parties have the support of the powerful Catholic Church, East Timor’s oldest institution, which also lost patience with a government that delivered very little to ordinary people. The Bishop of Dili, Ricardo da Silva told the author last year that despite having significant financial resources at its disposal, poverty worsened in the first four years of independence.

In 2005 the Church became an outspoken opponent of the Alkatiri government, organising mass rallies against a plan to make religious education optional in government schools. The demonstrations also tapped into deepening dissatisfaction as poverty worsened following the withdrawal of Indonesia.

Gusmão also has support from a group of 'reformist' FRETILIN members who failed in their attempt last year to have Alkatiri removed as secretary-general of the party. The new foreign minister, José Luis Guterres, an urbane former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, leads the Mudança group.

The East Timor elections are a crucial test for building democracy in post-conflict countries, and indeed in a country that has the added blessing, and curse, of significant resource wealth.



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Existing comments

A few brief comments. You speak about the "withdrdawal" of Indonesia. That seems to me to be a very delicate statement - almost as though they withdrew voluntarily. You claim that the CP of Mozambique had a representative at the most recent Fretilin conference.

Wikipeadia says that "the party probably is dissolved today". I have a complete list of world CPs and it does not list such a party in Moz ambique.

You also quote the Bishop of Dili claiming that poverty has worsened. It may have but poverty is also worsening in Australia and many other countries throughout the world and many have not gone through the same disruption as East Timor after only 5 years of independence.
Furthermore, the revenues from oil are only now starting to come on stream after a big fight with Mr Downer who promised to "teach Alkatiri a lesson in politics".
Why,oh why do you seem to be pedalling the same pro-Horta and Gusmao line as the Howard government (and the ALP) not to mention the Week-end Financial Review of 5-9/4/07. Fair go!

Peter Symon | 19 April 2007  

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