East Timor: Canberra's preferred candidate wins election

The second round of East Timor's presidential elections, held on May 9, resulted in the victory of Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta. Ramos Horta, running as an independent, had won 73% of the vote with 90% of ballots counted. He won a majority in 10 out of 13 districts. However, Fretilin, the party of defeated candidate Francisco Guterres Lu'Olo, has alleged Australian interference in the elections, including the intimidation of two campaign rallies in the final week of the campaign by Australian troops from the "International Stabilisation Force" (ISF).

According to a May 6 Fretilin press release, ISF troops disrupted Lu'Olo's campaign rallies in Dili on May 5 and Ainaro on May 3. Helicopters and armoured vehicles patrolled close to the rally while heavily armed combat troops went through the crowd. Australian ISF commander Brigadier Mal Rerden responded by claiming that the helicopter overflights were coincidental and that Australian troops had stayed at least 50 metres from the crowd. However, Fretilin backed up its claims with video evidence, and Sydney Morning Herald photographs clearly show Australian combat troops armed with automatic weapons among the crowd at the Dili rally.

Alex Tilman, a Melbourne-based member of Fretilin, told Green Left Weekly that the Australian-led ISF "was perceived as being hostile to Fretilin" since its deployment preceding the June 2006 overthrow of the democratically elected Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who was replaced with Ramos Horta. "The incidents [at the election rallies] have reinforced this perception", Tilman said.

Tilman said that Ramos Horta, who he described as "the only Nobel Prize winner in the world to support the Iraq war", promoted his good relationship with Australian Prime Minister John Howard as an asset in the second-round election debate. "Howard only visited East Timor after Ramos Horta came to power", Tilman noted. The reason was that the "Timorese stand in oil negotitions under Ramos Horta would be softer than under Fretilin", he argued. In a May 11 Radio 3AW interview, Howard said of Horta: "I think he was the hope of the side ... I think he will be good and he's a person of great dedication and he's a good friend of Australia's and that's very important."

Lu'Olo stood on a platform of supporting the Timorese government's campaign to ensure that offshore oil and gas was piped to East Timor not Australia. Ramos Horta, on the other hand, supports the World Bank deciding, Tilman said.

Another difference between the candidates' platforms was whether the Australian ISF contingent should be put under UN command and limited to police, with military personnel withdrawn. Tilman questioned the need for SAS units apparently hunting 2006 coup leader Alfredo Reinado. "They haven't found him after a year; in Afghanistan they've been hunting [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden for five years and they're still there. We don't want that in East Timor."

Tilman told GLW: "Fretilin's platform is to renegotiate the military presence [to] police under UN command. Their presence last year helped, but they have overstayed their welcome."

Reinado has not always been Australia's enemy. He was trained in Australia and before the events in May and June 2006 was regarded as close to both Canberra and East Timor's president, Xanana Gusmao. When Ramos Horta came to power as result of the overthrow of Alkatiri by a police and army mutiny led by Reinado and Vicente Rai Los da Conceicao, it was with the full support of the Australian political establishment.

The Australian media portrayed Alkatiri as being responsible for attacks by mutineers and civilian militias, despite the fact that it was his government, and the armed forces that remained loyal to it, that were their primary target.

Alkatiri was forced to resign after an ABC Four Corners episode alleged that he had armed a hit squad to eliminate political opponents, including Reinado. Ramos Horta, who was then foreign minister, purportedly provided this documentary with the "independent" Timorese perspective while backing up the allegations. The main evidence the program provided was Rai Los claiming that he was the leader of Alkatiri's hit squad. Alkatiri was later cleared of the charges by a UN inquiry. He remains general secretary of Fretilin. Strangely, Rai Los became a prominent member of Ramos Horta's election campaign team.

Ironically, as well as Ramos Horta's election victory, May 10 saw the announcement that Alkatiri supporter and former interior minister Rogerio Lobato was being imprisoned for seven years, after losing his appeal against conviction for distributing arms to civilians during the 2006 coup. He did not deny having done so, but argued that it was a constitutional response to much of the security forces taking up arms against the government. At the time of his arrest by Australian forces during the 2006 events, Australian media and politicians cited the charges as evidence for Rai Los's claims about his pro-Alkatiri hit squad.

The Australian establishment is openly welcoming the election of Ramos Horta. Tilman believes that how much of it is due to Australian government interference may not be clear for some time. Citing the revelations about Australian complicity that are emerging from the inquiry into the killing of five Australian journalists in East Timor by invading Indonesian forces in 1975 he said: "Only now are we hearing what Australia's intentions were in 1975. Personally, I think there is Australian interference in East Timor to influence economic policy and foreign affairs. But it could be many years before we find out."