Ramos Horta Rising


‘Horta, Horta,’ a young businessman chanted as he greeted me on Election Day in Dili. Only a year earlier, this businessman had raised money for FRETILIN. He was from the west part of East Timor and had also supported fugitive Alfredo Alves Reinado. As he sat with his friends around the table of a bistro in one of Dili’s flashiest hotels, the mood was happy, even jubilant.

In this desperately poor country, political loyalty is closely linked to opportunity for one’s family and friends. But nationalism and nation-building still run deep.

In East Timor’s recent Presidential elections, Dili’s young urban elite wanted change. They voted for a candidate who looked good, spoke English and was able to represent East Timor to the rest of the world. Like most urban elites, they wanted a candidate who would address them directly and promise them a future role in government, the public service, development and education.

Only one candidate met these requirements for Dili’s young urban elite and that was Jose Ramos-Horta.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict elections in East Timor. The final days of campaigning in Dili were deceptive and, although the FRETILIN rally was the best attended, it was Ramos-Horta who ultimately triumphed in the capital. East Timor’s voters are becoming younger this election — 66,000 young people voted for the first time. And for the young urban elite, it was another festa where attending a FRETILIN rally was based more on family obligation than any real independent desire.

Many of Dili’s young urban elite feel excluded by FRETILIN (who currently control Parliament). They have either returned from studying abroad on scholarships or have studied in a local university with no promise of employment at the end. The problem is not so much a lack of money for education but just spending the allocated budget.

Former FRETILIN Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is no great radical: politically, he falls closer to Australian Labor Leader Kevin Rudd than to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. While Alkatiri bargained hard with Australia to get a fair deal on the Timor Gap oil and gas fields, FRETILIN’s development agenda was applauded and closely engineered by the World Bank and a couple of well-placed Australian public servants.

While FRETILIN retains its emotional pull for their parents’ generation, for the children of the Resistance it has become simply a political party that has governed poorly. Many believe the propaganda — that Alkatiri distributed guns to civilians — repeated by Indonesia’s Metro TV and honoured by last year’s Gold Walkley being awarded to Liz Jackson and the ABC’s Four Corners despite the fact that evidence is still thin on the ground.

‘I may be a stupid person but I never distributed guns to civilians,’ Ramos-Horta famously proclaimed to the Democratic Party’s (PD) National Conference in October 2006. In the televised debate before the Presidential election, Ramos Horta recounted a telling anecdote. In March 2006, FRETILIN Minister Ana Pessoa had visited him. She was worried about the ‘Petitioners’ (army personnel who had walked out in February in protest over poor conditions and corruption) and had gone to see Alkatiri. He had laughed. She had gone to see Horta. He had been concerned.

On the streets of Dili, last year’s crisis is seen largely as the inability or even unwillingness of Alkatiri and FRETILIN to resolve the problems caused by the Petitioners. Lu Olo, the FRETILIN candidate for President, should have responded to Ramos-Horta’s claim. But Lu Olo was absent from the TV debate, he had decided to campaign on nearby Atauro Island instead.

Ramos-Horta cannily used the East Timorese and international media, especially local television which broadcasts only in Dili, to its full potential. In disregard of East Timor’s electoral laws and in a country not yet beset by paid political advertising, the incumbent President Xanana Gusmao, sat next to Ramos-Horta and Alberto Ricardo da Silva (Bishop of Dili) in what became a sombre yet blatant election statement.

In the days following the election, the residents of Dili’s internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps closely studied the results in the city’s newspapers. Dili’s security situation has deteriorated further since late last year, and some camps have expanded. ‘It’s difficult to know how we’re going to solve the internally-displaced situation in the camps,’ one senior FRETILIN official told me. ‘Although Ramos-Horta doesn’t know what to do either,’ he quickly added.

I revisited the district of Kintal Kiik next to Dili’s main market, half burnt down in May–June last year and then plagued by gang violence from August onwards. Most of its residents are still living in IDP camps, although there was the hopeful sign of the local garage opening once again and the woman selling household goods at a kiosk welcomed me with a smile, instead of last year’s nervous fear.

‘We want to go and rebuild our houses, but we still don’t have security if we move back there,’ a former resident of Kintal Kiik living in Don Bosco IDP Camp told me. Now, with the election period, many IDPs fear a shift from gang-based to political violence.

In Dili, FRETILIN’s candidate Lu Olo polled badly. He placed third after the Social Democratic Association of Timor’s (ASDT) Xavier do Amaral. The PD’s Fernando ‘Lasama’ Araujo came a close fourth.

But Dili is not East Timor. FRETILIN won outright in the eastern areas of Baucau, Lautem and Viqueque and the overall vote meant that Lu Olo polled higher than any other candidate.

Can Ramos-Horta become the next President? That depends largely on whether people will vote for him in the western parts of East Timor. If do Amaral’s ASDT and its massive support base in the Mambae areas of Aileu, Ainaro and Manufahi swing behind Ramos-Horta, which looks increasingly likely, then he can.

Can Xanana become the next Prime Minister? The Presidential run off in early May is a curtain raiser for the main event — the General Elections on 30 June.

Ramos Horta and Xanana need to organise their new CNRT Party in less than two months. PD, which was formed six years ago, has been slowly building and consolidating its support base in the western areas and won outright during the Presidential elections in Oecusse, Bobonaro, Covalima and Ermera.

Both elections will be won in the weswhich is where most of East Timor’s people live. The more interesting question is whether a highly centralised Xanana–Ramos-Horta team backed by the new CNRT will be able to form a Government in coalition with ASDT and more importantly, the PD.

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