EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Democracy triumphs in East Timor
, July 21, 2007
East Timor's pro-democracy parties have gained at the expense of the Marxist Fretilin party in recent parliamentary elections.Elections to the East Timorese Parliament have seen a dramatic decline in support for the Marxist Fretilin party, and a corresponding growth in support for the pro-democracy opposition parties, paving the way for a new start for the country.
The result is extraordinary. Just a year ago, East Timor collapsed into near-anarchy after the army and police forces divided. The ensuing violence saw many houses burned in the capital city, Dili. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes to live in refugee camps scattered around the capital.
Peace was restored only when the UN oversaw the intervention of an international military and police force.
Despite the presence of over 1,000 Australian troops and police - along with contingents from New Zealand, Portugal and other countries - many thousands of people are still displaced from their homes: refugees in their own country.Litmus test
The elections were a litmus test for the Fretilin Government, which has ruled East Timor since independence in 2002, and which had 57 per cent of the seats in the national parliament.
In the parliamentary election, contested by 14 parties or coalitions, four principal parties emerged, with three minor parties each winning two or three seats.
The largest single party remains Fretilin
, which secured 29 per cent of the popular vote, and will have 21 seats in the new Parliament of 65 seats. This is almost exactly the same vote that Fretilin received in the presidential elections last April.
Xanana Gusmao's party, CNRT
, won 24 per cent of the vote, and will have 18 seats. The pro-democracy opposition parties, PSD (Social Democratic Party), ASDT
and the Democratic Party (PD)
, won a combined 27 per cent of the vote, and will have 19 seats.
The significance of this is that the pro-democracy parties have agreed to form a coalition government. Gusmao has already approached these parties with a view to forming a stable coalition, and an agreement in principle was announced on July 6.
The new government will have a working majority in parliament, and will also have the support of a number of members of minor parties.
Fretilin, despite being the largest single party, has little support from other parties in the parliament, just as it has little support in the community outside its own power base.
Nevertheless, Fretilin's general-secretary, Mari Alkatiri, told the Reuters newsagency that his party would attempt to form a minority government.
However, the Constitution clearly states that the parties with a majority of votes in the parliament will form the government.
Despite relatively high levels of illiteracy in East Timor, a legacy of East Timor's colonial past, over 80 per cent of people voted in the elections, despite voting not being compulsory. Just over 0.6 per cent of votes were found to be blank, and fewer than 2 per cent were judged invalid.
The election campaign was marred by occasional acts of violence, when Fretilin supporters in the far eastern districts attacked campaigners of rival parties, including CNRT and the Democratic Party (PD).
However, these had little effect on the final outcome.
More seriously, the European Union's international observers reported a number of serious electoral breaches, including the use of government resources to support political candidates, the appointment of a former police chief as a candidate for Xanana Gusmao's CNRT, and a campaign by Fretilin to get heads of villages to sign a community contract for local development offered by Fretilin, thereby indirectly endorsing Fretilin's campaign.
The EU mission also noted that in at least one village, the village head had authorised only Fretilin to hold meetings.
In the final weeks of the campaign, a huge volume of propaganda was released by CNRT and Fretilin, indicating that they had access to very substantial financial resources not available to the pro-democracy opposition parties.
Despite this, the vote represented a clear rejection of the policies pursued by the Fretilin government over the past five years, and was a vote for change.
The challenges facing the new government are daunting: an unemployment rate in the towns which is probably above 50 per cent; crumbling infrastructure, including roads, water and electricity; widespread illiteracy; and a lack of resources given to the development of local industries, including fisheries and agriculture.Development
However, the position is far from hopeless. The pro-democracy parties are committed to developing East Timor, using the capital which comes from East Timor's share of revenues from the new gas fields in the Timor Sea.
They will have about $1.3 billion to breathe new life into the developing nation.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.