Insults fly on eve of East Timor poll
April 7, 2007
The presidential election will be a verdict on
Fretilin, Lindsay Murdoch reports from Dili.
JOSE RAMOS-HORTA is contemplating a possible new
life writing books and travelling the world on
the lecture circuit as 400 porters and 90 ponies
this weekend carry ballot papers into East
Timor's mist-shrouded mountain villages before a
potentially explosive presidential election.
"If I observe my political demise on Monday I
will have the freedom to write and be a private
citizen, which I would enjoy immensely," said Mr
Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1966 Nobel Peace
Prize, who took over as Prime Minister amid violent upheaval last year.
More than 500,000 Timorese have registered to
vote in Monday's election, East Timor's biggest
test since it gained independence five years ago.
The people who defied intimidation and threats to
vote for their freedom in 1999 will reveal what
they think of the ruling Fretilin party's
leadership which, its critics say, has been too
slow in improving the lives of 1 million people,
one-third of whom often do not get enough to eat.
The vote will also be first opportunity for
Timorese to indicate whether they believe
Fretilin should continue to run the country after
the upheaval that left scores dead and forced
more than 150,000 people from their homes, many
of whom are still living in squalid refugee camps, afraid to return home.
Mr Ramos-Horta thinks he has only a one in three
chance of winning the vote for the presidency,
despite widespread speculation in the
international media that the job was his for the taking.
He blames Fretilin, the party he helped form in
the 1970s, for his possible defeat. "If I had not
accepted the prime ministership I would win this
election with more than 80 per cent … By trying
to have a balancing act, saving this country,
dealing with Fretilin, being nice to Fretilin, I have paid a price," he said.
Analysts in the capital, Dili, agree he is one of
three frontrunners in the eight-candidate poll.
Fretilin officials, meanwhile, are confident
their candidate, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres,
will replace the founding President, Xanana Gusmao.
They insist that the events last year that led to
their leader, Mari Alkatiri, being forced to step
down as prime minister were part of a secretly
planned coup to push Fretilin from power.
But Mr Ramos-Horta and Mr Guterres face a strong
challenge from Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, head
of the reformist youth-based Democratic Party,
who seems to have attracted disgruntled Fretilin supporters.
Mr de Araujo is a former student activist who
spent seven years in Indonesian jails and was one
of the key organisers of East Timor's campaign
for independence. Unlike the other frontrunners,
he cannot be blamed for last year's crisis or for
the disappointment that people's lives have not
improved since winning the long struggle for independence.
"Lasama's party is the party of the future," Mr Ramos-Horta said.
Monday's vote will mark the start of months of
uncertainty in East Timor, where 1600 United
Nations police and 1200 Australian and New
Zealand troops are deployed in case of trouble.
The poll outcome is not expected to be announced
for several days, creating a volatile period when
supporters of parties that suspect they have done
badly could resort to violence. Even then, a
clear-cut result is unlikely because the winner
must get 51 per cent of the vote. The two
candidates with the most votes will then contest
a run-off election in early April.
Next, the East Timorese will choose a new
parliament in a midyear election that will bare
deep-seated hatred among the country's tiny
Dili-based political elite. Mr Gusmao, backed by
his own fledgling party, will take on Mr
Alkatiri, who still runs Fretilin from the
position of secretary-general, in a looming
bitter fight for power and access to more than $1
billion of revenue from Timor Sea oil and gas, sitting in a New York bank.
The roots of the enmity between the country's two
most powerful figures goes back to the 1980s,
when Mr Gusmao took his Falintil anti-Indonesian
guerillas out of Fretilin. Their differences are
complex and partly ideological. Mr Alkatiri wants
to see Fretilin remain the all-dominant ruling
party; its central committee will probably
nominate him to return to the prime ministership if it wins the election.
Mr Gusmao, who is still widely popular despite
his lack of leadership during last year's crisis,
insists he is the best person to unify the
country. He wants to unlock the money that Mr
Alkatiri's government invested in a petroleum
fund, saying it is useless having money sitting
in a bank while the poor go hungry and the young
have no hope of employment. To win, Mr Gusmao
needs support of the main opposition parties,
including Mr de Araujo's Democratic Party, which
has worked hard to build support where most voters live, outside Dili.
Mr Ramos-Horta said he would tell his supporters
to vote for Mr Gusmao, his friend and political
ally in the fight in which both sides are already trading insults.
Mr Alkatiri has branded members of Mr Gusmao's
party as liars. Speaking to a small group of
foreign journalists on Thursday, Mr Ramos-Horta
unleashed an extraordinary attack on Mr Alkatiri,
describing him as "Fretilin's worst enemy", who
behaved in office as if he was leading a
superpower instead of one of the world's smallest
and poorest nations. If Fretilin did not install
a new leader it would lose the general election
and be reduced to an "insignificant" group within a year, he said.
After almost 12 months of mainly gang-based
attacks in Dili, there have been only sporadic
outbreaks of violence during presidential campaigning so far.
Four candidates complained yesterday of being
disadvantaged by intimidation, violence and a
delay in distributing passes for their
scrutineers to monitor the vote. A veteran
politician, Joao Carrascaloa, told journalists in
Dili that election officials had been
manipulating arrangements to favour Fretilin.
In a televised address yesterday Mr Ramos-Horta,
Mr Gusmao and Dili's Catholic bishop, Alberto
Ricardo, told the East Timorese to vote without
fear for whoever they believed would be the best president.
With Australian combat troops continuing to hunt
Alfredo Reinado in the central mountains, the
rebel leader has been unable to disrupt campaign
rallies. United Nations police are investigating
sporadic attacks mostly outside Dili, as well as
a raid on the National Electoral Commission
headquarters in Dili on Wednesday night.
A UN-appointed Independent Electoral
Certification Team has criticised a lack of
preparation for the vote, raising the possibility
it may not certify the result.
The three-member team, which includes the
Australian election expert Michael Maley, has
warned of problems that include candidate
registration and delays in setting up the National Electoral Commission.
But the UN's special representative in Dili, Atul
Khare, says he is confident the vote will be free
and fair. He told journalists this week that the
most important time would be the day after the
elections, when "the loser must accept the result
for the benefit of all Timorese".