East Timor: Socialist responds to presidential election

May 11, 2007

Max Lane spoke to Avelino Coelho, general secretary of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) about East Timor's presidential election, the second round of which was held on May 9.

Francisco Guterres Lu'Olo, the candidate of Fretilin, the party that currently holds a majority in the parliament and the cabinet, won around 30% of the vote. In the general elections in 2001, Fretilin won over 60% of the vote. The collapse in the party's vote, according to Coelho, is connected to the failure of the Fretilin government during its term of office since 2001 to deliver any progress in the socioeconomic arena.

Coelho said: "There has been a virtual ignoring of agriculture. The PST has had meetings with the government putting forward proposals that would advance production in agriculture. Our cooperatives, in the several villages where they are operating, are already doing that. The government just ignored all proposals. We are now more and more unnecessarily dependent on imports from Indonesia." Coelho also emphasised the high level of unemployment as another major grievance.

"In the end, [the PST] decided to support Jose Ramos Horta in the second round of the presidential elections. Of course, we were not giving unconditional support. We won agreement that we could read out our platform at some of Horta's rallies and we had speaking rights at all rallies to put our own views. Horta stated his agreement with the calls we were making for more of Timor's oil and gas income to be spent on helping our farmers increase agricultural production, and on health and education. He stated publicly that he would be a president for the poor and ordinary people."

Meanwhile, he said, Fretilin had defended its policy of minimising public spending, sticking to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank recipe of placing most oil and gas revenue in a long-term investment fund.

Coelho explained that after the presidential election, the PST would be concentrating on registering for the July parliamentary elections and campaigning on its own program. "We have not entered into any coalition with Horta. We will remain independent and continue to campaign for our program. We will be holding Horta to his promises, or we will be an opposition to him also. We received just over 2.5% of the vote in the presidential election first round. We must achieve 3% of the vote to meet the new electoral threshold.

"If we get that 3% or a bit over we may have between 4 and 7 seats in the new parliament, rather than our current one seat. It will be important to have that platform so as to strengthen the struggle over the next period."

Reaching out to the large number of people who are disaffected with Fretilin and came to hear Horta has resulted in new members for the PST, Coelho said. "In one of our base areas, Oesso, we were able to read out our main demands and ideas before Horta spoke and he had to respond." Over the next few days, Coelho explained, "we had delegations coming to the PST office, supporting our platform, and asking to join the party".

In the current climate, he said, it will not be easy to get from 2.5% to 3% or higher, but the PST is "going all out". Asked about the factors working against this, he said the main dynamic now was a desertion of people who had voted for Fretilin in the past to the new party being established by Xanana Gusmao, the incumbent president.

This party will be named the Council for the National Reconstruction of Timor — CNRT, the same initials of the old national liberation organisation headed by Gusmao, the Council for National Resistance of Timor. "We don't know yet exactly what kind of program CNRT will have — we have to wait and see", Coelho said. "What is clear is that Fretilin, lacks any vision of where they want to take the country."

Coelho added: "Fretilin, which was a progressive and revolutionary force in 1975, has now become, under [former prime minister Mari] Alkatiri's and Lu'Olo's leadership, a reactionary force. They seem to want the people to be dependent on them and their government, being uncaring about raising the incomes of the people. It has become a party of the elite."

Coelho also criticised Fretilin for turning to intimidation. "They went in and out of villages threatening people. The PST itself has experienced this in some areas. Yesterday in the village of Gariwai I saw Fretilin activists yelling that if Lu'Olo lost the election they would not allow any traffic to pass on the road between Dili and Viquique. They prefer to threaten the people rather than be concerned at raising the consciousness. They have turned to using gangster elements to terrorise the people."

Worse, he argued, its failure in government, both in the handling of the army in the April 2006 crisis and in the economic area, has deepened the country's dependence on foreigners. "They have become the instruments of foreign interests, imperialist interests." Coelho added that it had been Alkatiri and Lu'Olo who were at the forefront of asking for Australian and international forces into East Timor to get them out of the crisis that they had created. "They dominated the government then, and the parliament, nobody else."

"Through the coming election campaign, and after, the PST must fight to win a hearing among the people and advance an independent program, emphasising the need to develop agriculture and industry, and to involve the people directly in the political and development process, especially through cooperatives."

Ceolho commented that he thought that the international forces, including the Australian forces, had acted in a neutral way during the elections. However, he said, they didn't try to stop the intimidation being carried out by Fretilin's people.

Regarding the current military operations against Major Alfredo Reinado and Fretilin's criticism of a call by Horta during the campaign that the operation against Reinado should be stopped, Coelho said: "For a while now it has been the position of the commission set up to handle security — with representatives from the president of the parliament, the prime minister, the president of East Timor, the UN and the international forces — that the operation should stop if Reinado was willing to [enter into] dialogue. I don't see that Horta was doing anything more than repeating that. This is another case of Fretilin's deceit."

[Max Lane is a lecturer in South-East Asian studies at the University of Sydney. Visit http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/maxlaneintlasia/.]

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