Playing Favourites


Recent Australian representations of elections in East Timor have reflected the wishful thinking of the elite.

Media coverage of last week’s first round of the Presidential elections focused almost exclusively on the pro-Australian candidate, Jose Ramos-Horta. Similarly, commentaries over the make-up of a future government in Dili keenly search for a Xanana Gusmao-led coalition that might upset the currently FRETILIN-dominated Parliament.

The fact that Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres, the man who won the first round, was not seriously profiled by any major Australian outlet should give us pause to reflect on the quality of information provided by our media.

For Guterres to win the first round while being opposed by the incumbent President, the incumbent Prime Minster, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the Australian elite is quite an achievement. It shows that FRETILIN still resonates strongly with the East Timorese people as a force for independence.

There was a great deal of Australian media speculation over possible election fraud, pointing a finger at FRETILIN. This would have been remarkable, given the large number of international electoral observers and the open anti-FRETILIN bias of the East Timorese electoral authority, the National Electoral Commission (CNE).

CNE spokesman and Catholic Church representative Martinho Gusmao publicly endorsed opposition leader Fernando Araujo before the election. He then made a false claim that votes in the pro-FRETILIN town of Baucau were massively over-subscribed. European Union observers contradicted him and allegations of bias followed.

But what of Lu Olo? He was a guerrilla leader for the entire period of resistance to Indonesian rule. He was also Speaker of Parliament for over five years and remains a loyal member of FRETILIN. Mari Alkatiri, the former Prime Minister reviled by the Australian media, is still General Secretary of the Party. While the coup attempt and foreign intervention have undoubtedly shaken confidence in FRETILIN, the first round ballot has demonstrated that no other party in East Timor has anything close to its support.

An alliance of sorts was formed at the time of the first Presidential election of April 2002. FRETILIN agreed to support Xanana provided he ran as an independent. Xanana’s only opposition was Francisco Xavier do Amaral from the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT). FRETILIN had already gained an outright majority in the August 2001 elections for the Constituent Assembly (which went on to become the nation’s first parliament).

Prior to the 2006 crisis, a major political achievement was the effective combination of the strategic vision of Alkatiri’s FRETILIN, the charisma of Xanana and the diplomacy of Ramos-Horta. Despite a tiny budget (increasing in 2007, with oil revenue) they founded the institutions of a modern state, expanded education, rehabilitated the rice fields, developed a major health program and clawed back several billion dollars in oil and gas revenue from the Howard Government.

Alkatiri attracted most Australian hostility, particularly over the protracted oil and gas talks. Ramos-Horta was the weak link. I have detailed elsewhere how he attempted three compromises all of which would have pleased Howard and Downer but resulted in less revenue for his country. Little wonder he emerged as the Australian favourite.

Xanana maintained an aloofness from party politics — a stance which aided his major political project of reconciliation. He forgave the Indonesian generals despite a lack of repentance on their side and attempted to reintegrate former militia members into local communities.

However this aloofness evaporated in the crisis, as Xanana indirectly supported coup leader Alfredo Reinado and bitterly attacked FRETILIN. As President, he demanded the resignation of Mari Alkatiri, using an ABC Four Corners report which had relied on the word of one of Reinado’s allies to accuse Alkatiri of arming a ‘hit squad’ to kill his political opponents, and of having already murdered a number of them.

A UN investigation into the crisis later discredited this story.

The Australian media, however, clings to the ‘hit squad’ theory, gaining some comfort from the conviction last year of Alkatiri ally and former Interior Minister, Rogerio Lobato, for the offence of distributing police weapons to civilians. Lobato, appealing his conviction, maintains these acts were justified during a coup attempt when the police force had disintegrated.

With coup leader Reinado still at large, but apparently no longer considered a political asset or a threat by either Xanana or the Australians, East Timor seem to have returned to a somewhat more ‘normal’ footing. But it is a political process badly damaged by violence, dislocation and mistrust.

Ramos-Horta may still win the Presidency from Lu Olo in the second round of elections to be held on 8 May. However, this depends more on voter perceptions than on the small opposition parties’ ability to deliver ‘blocs’ of votes as they might in a more class-based party system.

Ramos-Horta has international recognition but Lu Olo is the ‘grassroots’ candidate. Many of the epithets thrown at Mari Alkatiri that he was arrogant and in exile during the struggle now apply to Ramos-Horta, not Lu Olo. In any case, a Ramos-Horta Presidency would not be a major barrier to a FRETILIN-led Government. East Timorese are used to having a figurehead non-FRETILIN President in tandem with a FRETILIN Government.

Xanana’s descent from the Presidency to party politics when he attempts to become Prime Minister at the end of June, however, is a far more uncertain path. His role in the 2006 crisis and his open hostility to FRETILIN has damaged his standing as well as FRETILIN’s. After his passive support for last year’s coup, much of the army leadership will not trust him. His attempt to create a new coalition, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction  (CNRT) using the initials of an earlier coalition which included FRETILIN is a gamble which depends upon cobbling together a number of small parties whose only common theme is opposition to FRETILIN.

On the other side, FRETILIN will have suffered from their apparent inability to guarantee stability and the persistent attempts to blame the Government for the coup. FRETILIN may not be able to regain the outright parliamentary majority it has held since 2001.

On the other hand, the Presidential first round tells us FRETILIN is still the major political force in the country. Its vote could still exceed 40 per cent in the parliamentary elections. The competition would then be between a FRETILIN-led coalition and a less coherent Xanana-led coalition.

Personalities aside, neither Xanana nor-Ramos Horta offer much of a strategic alternative to FRETILIN. Even though both participated in many of the FRETILIN-led Government’s campaigns, including those which sought to bring in new development partners such as China for oil and gas and Cuba for health, a number of differences have emerged.

Ramos-Horta has said he favours ‘greater privileges’ for foreign investors, and recently proposed a radical reduction in business taxes and tariffs. This would, however, increase Government reliance on oil and gas revenues.

Xanana’s one recent suggestion has been to speed up the controlled release of revenue from the country’s Petroleum Fund,   which was set up in 2005 to manage the revenues from huge oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea . So the main policy departure of a coalition led by Xanana and Ramos-Horta would seem to be spending up East Timor’s future oil wealth faster.

FRETILIN, for its part, has an experienced group of Ministers including Deputy Prime Minister Estanislau da Silva, several senior women Ministers including Maria Boavida and Ana Pessoa, a strong Party machine, widespread membership and skills in coalition building.

Even with an absolute parliamentary majority, FRETILIN recruited independent MPs such as Health Minister (and Second Deputy PM) Rui Araujo, Finance Minister Fernanda Borges, Education Minister Armindo Maia, Labour Minister Arsenio Bano and even Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta into the Government.

A FRETILIN-led coalition Government thus seems a more likely outcome of the coming parliamentary elections than a Xanana-led one. The return of Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister is also possible. Just how the constellation of forces that deposed Alkatiri would react to this is not clear. Their expectations have been raised by the Australian-led international intervention last year and the subsequent anti-FRETILIN push.

In particular, it’s unlikely that Xanana imagines he is trading in the Presidency to become Opposition Leader.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.