Sydney Morning Herald
Gusmao's new party shakes East Timor's political foundations
February 17, 2007
WHEN nominations close at the end of this month for East Timor's April 9 presidential election, expect to see the start of a process aimed at shaking up the foundations of the new nation's politics.
As he has consistently stated to widespread disbelief, the President, Xanana Gusmao, the hero of East Timor's independence struggle, will not stand for another term. But don't believe his story that he wants to become a farmer and grow pumpkins.
In parliamentary elections later this year, Mr Gusmao will stand for election at the head of a new, inclusive political party using the name of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the CNRT. This is the coalition that achieved an independence vote in the tumultuous
1999 referendum. The aim is to knock the Fretilin party off its pedestal as the dominant political force and remove its majority in the parliament. This was formed from an earlier elected constituent assembly when the United Nations interregnum ended in May 2002 and the new nation was declared.
Meanwhile, the current Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, is expected to stand for president, in a job swap closely co-ordinated with Mr Gusmao, according to sources close to the two leaders.
Mr Ramos-Horta was a founder of Fretilin in 1974 and Mr Gusmao an early member. However, both withdrew to a party-neutral position during the Indonesian occupation out of disillusionment with Fretilin's exclusive ways and some violent characters among its exiled leaders.
Mr Gusmao's push into active politics means East Timor is heading into months of competitive electioneering. The risks of violence and clashes are high.
Fretilin's assumption that it would naturally rule the country for 50 years has already been shattered by last May's violence. This led to its prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, standing down and its home minister, Rogerio Lobato, facing charges of arming a party hit squad.
Even though prosecutors have recently declared a lack of evidence to charge Dr Alkatiri over the hit squad, they are demanding a seven-year jail term for Mr Lobato. The stain hangs over Fretilin.
In any case, Dr Alkatiri is no great vote-winner, despite being a competent manager of government. Of Yemeni descent and one of the country's small Muslim minority, he spent the 24 years of Indonesian occupation in Mozambique and Angola, and has little affinity with the ordinary citizen. As prime minister he clashed with the powerful Catholic bishops.
Fretilin's leadership is thus heading for a shake-up to counter Mr Gusmao, and perhaps position it to join a unity government after the elections. Moderates such as the Deputy Prime Minister, Stanislau da Silva, or the Foreign Minister, Jose Luis Guterres - who challenged Dr Alkatiri at a party congress last May - are likely to make a move.
Mr Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, will play a critical role in holding East Timor together if he wins the presidency, as he probably will, given his own popularity and Mr Gusmao's backing.
The presidency would give him more leverage to engineer a solution to the split in the country's small army that precipitated last year's troubles. Nearly 600 of its 1600 soldiers were sacked last March after protesting against alleged discrimination, and became a restive element. Known as the "petitioners", they remain outside the army but are being paid salaries to keep them happy while their future is sorted out. On the other side of the dispute is the army chief who sacked them, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak or "TMR".
As the revered former commander of the anti-Indonesian guerilla resistance after Mr Gusmao was captured, TMR is entrenched in his job, although his standing is damaged by the split. He refuses to negotiate with the petitioners en bloc but has agreed to talk to them individually about a return to the ranks.
It remains to be seen how TMR will address their grievance - that army leaders, mostly veteran "Lorosae" officers from the wilder eastern side of the territory, where guerilla activity was strongest, had discriminated against young "Loromonu" recruits from the western districts close to the Indonesian border.
However, the split runs much deeper in East Timor's complex ethnic and linguistic make-up, going back to pre-colonial times, and spread from the army into gang clashes in Dili last year.
As president, Mr Ramos-Horta would use his role as commander-in-chief rather more "actively" than it has been so far. But getting TMR and the other ex-guerilla army leaders to take his guidance will be a big task.