East Timorese parties prepare for June 30 vote

Amidst allegations of intimidation and politically orchestrated violence in the wake of East Timor's recent presidential election, political parties are preparing for the June 30 legislative election. The ruling party Fretilin, which won a majority of seats in the 2001 constituent assembly election, is facing the prospect of a significantly reduced representation in parliament.

If the voting pattern from the presidential election is repeated (around 30% support for Fretilin), Fretilin could well end up as an opposition party or part of a coalition in the new legislature. This would be a major setback for the party, which has been unable to fully recover from the violence that erupted in May-June 2006 and the United Nations Commission of Inquiry's finding that senior Fretilin ministers were implicated in the arming of civilian militia.

A major test for Fretilin in the lead-up to and after the June 30 ballot will be how well it can consolidate its members and support base and counter the growing influence of its political opponents.

Fourteen parties will contest the ballot, with the formal campaigning period running from May 29 to June 28. One of the newest parties, the National Congress of Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) headed by former president Xanana Gusmao, is still an unknown quantity. CNRT was the acronym for the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the umbrella body that encompassed most of the organisations that campaigned for independence during the Indonesian occupation (and also led by Gusmao). According to ABC Radio, Fretilin secretary-general and former prime minister Mari Alkatiri described the use of the initials as "cynical" and "opportunistic".

Gusmao played a prominent role during the presidential campaign in support of successful candidate Jose Ramos Horta (who stood as an independent), appearing at Horta's campaign rallies and meetings. The electoral success of the new CNRT will in part be a measure of Gusmao's popularity. Gusmao has also come under criticism for his role in last year's crisis and, more generally, as part of the older layer of the political elite who are seen as detached from the plight of the East Timorese masses and who rely heavily on the historical legacy of their role in the independence struggle. On the final day of the CNRT founding congress on April 30, Gusmao stated: "CNRT has already liberated our nation and the existence of CNRT now is to liberate our people from poverty and injustice."

Other significant players are the Democratic Party (PD) and the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT). After Fretilin, these two parties received the highest votes in the 2001 ballot and both polled strongly in the first presidential round, including in districts where Fretilin previously had strong support. The PD polled 19.8 % (up from 8.72% in 2001) and the ASDT received 14.39% (almost double the 7.84% it received in 2001). The PD has been strongly critical of Fretilin policies and its base appears to be mainly former student activists and a younger layer of intellectuals and NGO activists. The PD's leader, Fernando de Araujo — or Lasama, as he is commonly known — was imprisoned for seven years by the Suharto dictatorship. Lasama has stated that the PD would be open to forming an alliance or coalition in the new parliament, but did not elaborate with whom or on what terms.

The ASDT, led by Francisco Xavier do Amaral (a former Fretilin leader and first president of the republic in 1975), has entered into a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, which received 8.86% in the first presidential round.

The only socialist party to contest the June 30 ballot is the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), which is campaigning on the need for the development of the agricultural sector and the empowerment of East Timorese people at the local level of production. The PST has maintained and helped support a number of cooperatives since 1999 with very few resources, and hopes to improve its representation in the parliament from the one seat it presently holds. A May 19 article in the East Timorese paper Suara Timor Lorosae reported that the PST will run five candidates, including its current MP Pedro da Costa, on the CNRT's party list.

Party platforms and policies in most instances are yet to be articulated in full, and most of the coverage to date in the East Timorese media has consisted of rhetorical swipes between opposing parties or accusations of intimidation and politically motivated violence during and since the presidential campaign.

Fretilin issued several media releases during May citing incidents of attacks upon Fretilin members and stating the involvement of PD members and Horta supporters. A May 16 statement alleged: "Our members are being attacked and intimidated in Dili district, Ermera and Liquica districts west of Dili, the enclave district of Oecussi in West Timor, and Baucau and Viqueque districts east of Dili, over the last few days." Fretilin polled poorly in Oecussi, Ermera, Liquica and Dili in the presidential rounds.

On May 21, Fretilin issued a statement claiming that intimidation in Liquica was being conducted by supporters of Horta and was "organised by renegade former army sergeant Vicente de Conceicao (aka Railos). A United Nations investigation recommended Railos be prosecuted over multiple killings during a Railos-led attack on an army barracks in May last year." The statement also referred to a preliminary report released by the European Union Election Observer Mission (EUEOM) on May 11, which noted Railos served as "Liquicia district coordinator for Jose Ramos Horta's campaign for the presidency".

The EUEOM report also noted, however, questionable activity by Fretilin members and supporters. The report states: "In the two districts of Ermera and Liquica, [Fretilin presidential candidate] Lu-Olo and Horta, respectively, did not dissociate themselves from local figures allegedly involved in voter intimidation and in tensions with the opposing side. The EU EOM is concerned with the impunity granted to Antonio dos Santos, alias "55" ("Lima Lima"), whose hard-line pro-FRETILIN group has been linked with repeated cases of violent intimidation in Ermera district." It also states that in Dili, "FRETILIN made no secret of its use of Fuan Domin ("Bleeding Heart"), a group with known links with martial arts group PSHT to carry out 'door-to-door' campaigning".

The report referred to other activity of a dubious nature: "Allegations of vote-buying by both sides emerged from most districts and grew in volume in the last days of the campaign. Food aid earmarked for Bobonaro was discovered at the private home of a martial arts group leader, sparking suspicions of politically motivated distribution by the government. In a separate incident, 5000 US dollars and homemade weapons were found in a truck accompanying a FRETILIN convoy transporting government ministers and Lu-Olo supporters. Conflicting responses from persons present in the convoy raised suspicions of illegal financing of individual village chiefs and polling staff members in Ermera." The National Election Commission found that there was insufficient evidence to investigate further.

Other than the incidents reported in Ermera and Liquica, the report's preliminary conclusions stated: "Elsewhere, the EU EOM did not find convincing evidence of threats, and reported throughout the country no proven instance of retaliation against voters. The EU EOM found no convincing evidence to support allegations of massive vote buying."

On May 20, fighting between rival groups in Dili resulted in one person dead, several injured and 42 arrested by UN police. Fretilin issued a press release the following day claiming that the fighting was between PD and ASDT supporters and that the international media was falsely accusing Fretilin of involvement. However interim prime minister and senior Fretilin minister Estanislau da Silva was reported by Reuters on May 22 as saying that this and other clashes mostly involved drunken youth and had nothing to do with politics. Da Silva confirmed that security would be strengthened prior to the polls, stating: "We will not let criminals roam free. Those involved in criminal activities should be arrested and brought to justice."

Other factors yet to come into play include the push through parliament of new legislation affecting energy resources, especially the gas and oil reserves in the Timor Sea. The use and distribution of income from the national petroleum fund is likely to be one of considerable debate.

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