East Timor's presidential election campaign is now officially underway. Voting will be held on April 9. Max Lane spoke by phone with presidential candidate Avelino Coelho, secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST).
@question = What issues are people raising with you in your campaign?
We have visited several towns already where we have organised rallies and other meetings. The language issue is important and people are responding strongly. I am opposing the use of Portugese as the national language and arguing that Tetun be both the national and official working language. Indonesian can be a back-up working language, as stated in the constitution, but Tetun must be the national language.
@question = Why is this so important?
There is the big issue of the urgent need for Timorese to win back pride, to start defending and developing their own national character. We are more and more dependent on foreigners for everything and are losing any sense of national integrity. We have to develop the language that the people speak. But at the same time it is a very pressing concrete issue. People are being discriminated against, especially regarding jobs, because they don't speak Portugese. People who fought long and hard against the military occupation and can't speak Portuguese — they speak Tetun and Indonesian — can't get jobs.
@question = And this gets a bigger response than economic issues?
The economic situation is a big issue too, but they are tied together, the need to develop a strong independent character for the nation and the struggle to get out of the economic crisis that the government has created. Apart from employment, rice is the other issue. It is still very expensive and hard to get. There are queues for people to get rice despite the fact that we have more than enough land to grow a lot of rice. This is a failure of the Mari Alkatiri and Jose Ramos Horta governments.
@question = How are you finding campaigning?
It is hard. Unlike others, we have little money. Our party is a party of the poor and the youth. There is no media that reaches outside of the capital, Dili. There is TV in Dili but not outside. So we have to travel. I have invitations from groups in every single district of East Timor, to go there and speak. But we won't be able to do that. It costs money for petrol and for cars. We will have to be selective about where we go.
@question = So how have things gone on your visits?
Where the PST has been doing work and where we have had time to prepare, we have had some good turnouts. A few days ago in Ossu we had a town gathering where 7000 people turned up — in a town of 9700. Fretilin held a rally around the same time and got 1200 people, using more than 40 trucks to bring in people from outside. In Viqueque we got about 1000 people. In Manututu, there was less preparation time and we got about 500. We have made quite a few visits to the Bacau region. They are not always big gatherings, sometimes we visit people in the rice fields and at work.
@quesiton = And what about the other campaigns, by Horta or Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo from Fretilin?
To be honest, I can't really say. I have been visiting the villages and towns and there is no media here, so I don't hear much about what others are doing. We don't come across each other. But I don't think Horta has attracted more than 400 people at his meetings. Where there are rallies, they are on different days. And there have been no debates. Occasionally, we may have some contact at a rally. On March 28, for example, in Vemasse, in Bacau district, we held a rally of about 1000 people. A truck turned up with about five youth in it shouting "Fretilin will win!" They confronted our people and started shouting for the rally to disband. They tried to provoke a fight but didn't succeed.
@question = Why no debates?
There have been some invitations for debates between candidates, for example from the university students on campus, but Horta and Luolo have declined. So they don't usually happen or they are attended just by some of the other candidates. Horta and Lu-Olo, I think, are relying a lot on symbols.
In Dili, for example, there are colour posters everywhere with a picture of Horta receiving the Nobel prize alongside Bishop Belo. He wants to give the impression that he is supported by the Catholic Church. I even heard there may be posters with his photo when he was meeting the Pope. But the church has stayed neutral so far.
@question = And Fretilin?
I think they are worried about Lu-Olo's national profile and popularity. They have been pushing for something that we think is not legal under the current law. They want the Fretilin flag to appear next to Lu-Olo's name on the ballot paper. Fretilin more and more relies on the historical myth of its past. But under the current constitution, presidential candidates are not nominated as party representatives. They are supposed to be nominated as individuals, by at least 5000 people. I protested this move by Fretilin at a meeting with the president a while ago.
@question = So your campaign is not actually a PST campaign?
In fact, there are different people getting involved helping us. We are pleased about that. The last round of campaigning will be focussed in Dili. We are hoping to attract more than 10,000 people to our election rally there. We will press home our case that the government has failed.
@question = And what about the Australian and foreign military presence? The last time we spoke you called on the Australian military not to take sides in the internal conflicts. Has that become an issue in the campaign?
No, the foreign military presence has not generated any big negative impacts so far.