COVER STORY: East Timor elections: Australia's role
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, March 17, 2007
East Timorese opposition leaders have called on Australia to help ensure that their country's forthcoming elections are free and fair, writes Peter Westmore.
With Presidential elections to be held in troubled East Timor on April 9, the president of the nation's Democratic Party called for Australia to increase its police and defence force presence in the country, to help ensure that the forthcoming elections for the Presidency and the national parliament are free and fair.
Fernando de Araujo, the president of the Democratic Party, was speaking near the end of a tour of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. He is a candidate in the forthcoming Presidential election, along with Fretilin's Lu-Olo, José Ramos Horta, and other candidates.
Mr de Araujo, for seven years a political prisoner during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, was accompanied by the vice-president of the party, João Boavida, also a former political prisoner.
While in Canberra, they briefed the Returned and Services League on the current situation in East Timor, discussed agricultural co-operation with the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Peter McGauran, and health issues with Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, and briefed interested MPs and senators.
One of the main issues they addressed was the decision of President Xanana Gusmao not to re-contest this position but to support José Ramos Horta, the current Prime Minister. (Horta was appointed Prime Minister by Xanana Gusmao in mid-2006, after the former Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, was implicated in the scandal in which government firearms were given to a death-squad assembled by one of Alkatiri's closest government ministers, Rogerio Lobato).
Mr Boavida said that the forthcoming elections would be regarded by the people of East Timor as a referendum on the performance of Fretilin, the governing party since independence in 2002, and on the performance of Mr Horta, Prime Minister for the past nine months.
He said that when it took office in 2002, Fretilin had promised to run an open government and institute policies to develop the small nation.
Instead, unemployment remained at over 70 per cent in the capital Dili, corruption went unpunished, and Fretilin ministers had attempted to award themselves "perks" such as retirement pensions on full pay and free international travel, while most of the people lived on less than $1 a day.
Fretilin had sought to build ties with countries such as Cuba and China, at the expense of neighbouring countries such as Australia and Indonesia.
Additionally, it had promoted the use of Portuguese as the official language, marginalising the large majority of the East Timorese people who had grown up and been educated during the Indonesian occupation, and who had no knowledge of Portuguese.
On top of this, it had armed a death squad aimed at the assassination of Fretilin's political rivals, and presided over not only infighting in the defence force and police in 2006, which led to the breakdown of law and order, but also gang warfare which led to the destruction of many homes.
As a result, tens of thousands of people fled to sanctuary in churches and schools. Xanana Gusmao and José Ramos Horta asked the UN to send police and troops into Dili to restore order.
Even today, about 20,000 people are still living in tent compounds around Dili, including about 8,000 outside the city's airport.
Mr Boavida said that Fretilin had betrayed the promises made in 2002, and would therefore lose the 2007 elections.
He added that, while José Ramos Horta was well known abroad as the winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and as East Timor's Foreign Minister since independence, he would be judged on his performance as Prime Minister of East Timor since the middle of 2006.
Unlike the President, Xanana Gusmao, Horta had spent the entire period of the Indonesian occupation outside East Timor, and since 2002, spent much time abroad as Foreign Minister.
When appointed Prime Minister last year, Mr Horta had promised to solve the security crisis, and to provide peace and prosperity for the people of East Timor.
Since then, the security situation deteriorated, to the point where more foreign police and troops were needed to maintain basic security, particularly in the run-up to the election.
Despite Mr Horta's promise to solve the crisis of the internally displaced people, tens of thousands are still living in tents, without electricity, fresh running water or proper sanitation, making them refugees in their own land.
In Dili over the past two months, the supply of rice, a staple food, has collapsed, leaving thousands of people, particularly the poor, hungry.
The government's response was to say that rice would not be released until the rioting stopped, virtually accusing the women who buy rice of being rioters. His actions have worsened the crisis.
In the eyes of the people of East Timor, José Ramos Horta has failed to deliver on the promises he made last year, and lacks credibility.
The three major opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, have recently established a coalition which is committed to working together for a better East Timor. These parties together received about 25 per cent of the popular vote in the 2001 elections for the Constituent Assembly, against 57 per cent received by Fretilin, then seen as the party which had led the struggle for independence.
As a result, the door is now wide open for the opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, to form the next government of East Timor.
- Peter Westmore.