Ramos-Horta landslide best possible outcome

Ramos-Horta landslide best possible outcomeThe landslide victory by José Ramos-Horta in East Timor’s presidential elections is the best possible outcome for the new country, unifying the nation after the fractious violence of 2006 and giving democracy a second chance.

Ramos-Horta secured more than 69 per cent of the vote, completely overshadowing the candidate from the ruling Fretilin party, Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres. The decisive win indicates that the opposition forces stand a very good chance of defeating the Fretilin government at the June 30 parliamentary poll. A victory will herald a new, more democratic East Timor which is also likely to be less hostile to Australia.

Significantly, the presidential election was held without incident, indicating that Australian and UN-administered security is helping bring peace to the country. But these elections were for the ceremonial post of president; the Fretilin government may prove to be a sore loser should it be defeated in the June 30 poll. Renewed violence cannot be ruled out. The significant oil wealth of this impoverished country means the stakes are high.

The vote underscores the depth of antipathy  felt towards the Fretilin government. It has badly managed the country’s post-independence development and the minor dispute in the armed forces which sparked renewed violence last year.

Fretilin, founded in 1974, was East Timor’s first pro-independence party and in the first parliamentary elections in 2001 it won 55 per cent of the vote. But this government, dominated by exiles who had lived in communist Mozambique during the Indonesian occupation, proved to be autocratic in style and substance.

Even worse, it allowed the economy to go backwards after the downsizing of the UN presence in East Timor. In 2005-06 it only managed to spend half of the money available in the national budget. The country’s young and massively unemployed population quickly became involved in gang violence when conflict broke out between soldiers from the eastern and western regions within East Timor.

Last June Ramos-Horta and the outgoing President, Xanana Gusmão, used their moral authority to force Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to accept responsibility for the descent into renewed violence and to stand down. Ramos-Horta served as interim prime minister, and now he and Gusmão are attempting a swap as the President makes a bid for executive power.

Gusmão has formed a new political party, the CNRT, to challenge Fretilin at the June 30 poll. The President’s bid for executive power follows his two-decade war with the Fretilin party. He blames its 'leftist ideology' for having cruelled the country’s independence hopes in the 1970s by inviting the Indonesian invasion. His new political party, the National Council of Timorese Reconstruction, bears the same Portuguese acronym, CNRT, as the former multi-party resistance council that he established in 1988.

Significantly, Gusmão and other opposition parties have the support of the powerful Catholic Church, East Timor’s oldest institution.

Gusmão and Ramos-Horta are also aligned with the biggest and best-organized opposition party, the Democratic Party. Its candidate for the presidential election, Fernando 'Lasama' de Araujo, a former student activist who spent seven years in Indonesian jail, gained more than 19 per cent of the vote in the first-round election.

Ramos-Horta strongly endorsed the Democratic Party when as a newly appointed prime minister he made an appearance at its national congress last year.

“Lasama’s party is the party of the future,” Mr Ramos-Horta said recently.

Ramos-Horta landslide best possible outcomeGusmão is supported by a group of ‘reformist’ Fretilin members who failed in their attempt last year to have Alkatiri removed as secretary-general of the party. The Mudança group is led by the foreign minister José Luis Guterres, an urbane former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.

The East Timor elections are also a crucial test for building democracy in a post-conflict country that has the added blessing, or curse, of significant resources wealth. While East Timor may get a more democratic government, it may not necessarily get better policy.

In a rash and populist move Gusmão has proposed undoing one of the exemplary policies of the Fretilin government, the creation of a Petroleum Fund to safely manage the country’s oil revenue. So far more than $US1 billion has been invested in US treasury bills with the US Federal Reserve. Withdrawing all of that money, as Gusmão has proposed, would be an over-reaction to the failure of the Fretilin government to spend the $US120 million budget, and would underscore why good policy advice from key donors, including Australia, will be needed for a considerable time.



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