BY JON LAND
The start of the formal election campaign period for East Timor's new Constituent Assembly began on July 15. Some 16 political parties and a number of independent candidates are contesting 88 seats in the election set for August 30, exactly two years after the historic referendum on independence.
The Independent Electoral Commission established by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has confirmed that 968 candidates will contest the national seats and 96 will run for district seats.
The assembly will include one representative from each of East Timor's 13 districts, to be elected on a first-past-the-post basis. The remaining 75 representatives will be elected on a national basis using a proportional representation system of voting.
Fretilin was the first to kick-off the election campaign with a rally on July 15 in Dili which swelled to around 5000 at its peak — a relatively small turn out given party leaders claim a support base of around 100,000. On the same day, Fretilin's traditional rival, the conservative Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), held a press conference where party head Joao Carrascalao said UDT would "combat" problems like poverty and ignorance which lead to "hate, enmity, disintegration and mutual suspicions".
The UDT has taken out full-page advertisements featuring "caring for the people" slogans in several editions of the Timor Post.
The pre-campaign period was marked by repeated statements by UNTAET head Sergio de Mello and East Timorese leaders Bishop Belo and Xanana Gusmao that violence could threaten to de-rail the election process.
This prompted the creation of the Pact of National Unity, which 14 parties signed, pledging to respect the result of the ballot and use peaceful campaigning methods and activities before and after the vote.
A special investigative team comprising UN and East Timorese personnel made preliminary checks in areas where it was suspected there could be problems — Aileu, Baucau, Dili, Same and Viqueque — but these were all found to be calm.
The July 19 Suara Timor Lorosae newspaper reported that police in Baucau are investigating an incident involving shots being fired at a UN landrover.
Signs of distrust and anger at the UN and some of the more established political parties was displayed when UNTAET head Sergio de Mello and representatives of the parties visited rural areas and towns. In Viqueque on July 17, locals abused representatives from the UDT.
By contrast, the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) has had a positive reception at recent meetings it has convened in towns like Liquica, Manatuto and Remexio. "We are carefully explaining to the people what we stand for and what our party program is... the people want serious answers to their problems", PST secretary general Avelino da Silva told Green Left Weekly.
"If some of our candidates are successful in the elections, we will use pressure from inside and outside the constituent assembly to help the oppressed, to help the farmers and labourers", he added.
Da Silva, a former member of the National Council, was also reported by July 19 Timor Post as saying that he did not want the Constituent Assembly to be like the National Council. "The regulations that were passed in the NC reflected the needs of the administration and not that of the people. These regulations did not take into account actual realities", he said.
While not standing in the elections himself, da Silva will be helping build support in the districts for the PST and its candidates. "I do not want to be in a so-called legislative body where I will be used as a rubber-stamp and cannot perform my duties as a people's representative", he told the Timor Post.