Socialist to contest East Timor's presidential election

On April 9, East Timor will hold its second presidential election, which will be followed by parliamentary elections. The East Timorese political system combines a president, who is commander-in-chief of the army and who has veto powers over legislation, with an executive cabinet headed by a prime minister who is elected by the parliament.

There are nine presidential candidates, compared to two at the last elections. They include Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo from Fretilin, current prime minister Jose Ramos Horta, Socialist Party of Timor (PST) general-secretary Avelinho Maria Coelho.

While the formal campaign period is scheduled to start on March 23, the PST held a public meeting to launch Coelho's candidacy on March 13 in Dili. Coelho (also known as Avelino da Silva) spoke under the slogans "We have unfurled the banners of justice, and of the oppressed" and "End the crisis, develop the country, bring prosperity to the people". As well as more than 500 Timorese activists and supporters, diplomats from the Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Portuguese legations attended.

In polls issued the previous week by the Dili newspaper Suara Timor Loro Sae, Ramos Horta has been topping the polls and Coelho has been coming in second. I spoke to Coelho by phone about his campaign and the political conditions in East Timor.

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What conditions did you have to meet to be nominated as a presidential candidate?

I had to be nominated by 5000 citizens and show full documentary proof of that. The PST campaigned and collected 10,000 signatures. We decided to try to get signatures from around the country, with a minimum of 500 from each district. We collected 2500 signatures in Dili. It was a major advance for the building of our party.

What sets the general framework for your campaign?

East Timor is in a general crisis. It is marked by new divisions within society as well as a food crisis … It is the political elite, the leaderships of the government and parliament, who must take responsibility for these developments. They have allowed an economic system to develop where everything is based on cronyism. As a result, personal conflicts among themselves over their own immediate interests become a source of conflict among the nation itself, among the people. This disease has even spread into the armed forces and the police.

There are a whole range of policies that are deepening a social crisis. The decision, for example, to make Portuguese the national language, apart from reflecting a racist outlook, is also contributing to youth unemployment. And this will get worse. There are now thousands of young people studying in the universities in Indonesia. They will soon return as professionally trained people in their twenties but they will not speak Portuguese, so they will be officially unemployable. There has been absolutely no thought given to this issue.

Hundreds of young people have been sent to Cuba to study too, but there is no work being done here to establish the infrastructure to ensure they will be able to work when they return.

So you are campaigning for a change in language policy?

Yes, we would prioritise Tetun as the working language, with Indonesian as a supplementary working language. This means all the graduates from Indonesian universities, including in law, could start working straight away instead of being idle. It is also part of rebuilding a sense of national dignity and throwing off dependence on foreigners. We would cut right back on the money being spent on so-called foreign experts.

You see foreign domination as still a major problem?

Yes, almost all of the projects financed by the government are going to foreign companies, with some local person as the local partner. Even fishing is being dominated by a Thai company while our fisherpeople are left without a livelihood. If you are not connected to some official you have no chance. The small handicraft enterprises are also closing one after the other. The worst area is in agriculture.

We have a food crisis. We have become dependent on the import of rice. There are shortages and prices are skyrocketing. There are all kinds of rumours as to what is happening to imported rice. Cooperatives, which should be the basis of our agricultural production, are collapsing. We must invest in agriculture; we have the money but we are not investing it.

You mean oil and gas money?

Yes, but the money is not being used. It is being saved somewhere — it is not clear to the people where, or how or who is managing it. So we are not using this money to invest in agriculture, while foreign investors are being cajoled to come in. Our policy is to use the oil money immediately for agricultural and industrial development. We should also be able to lower the very high taxes that ordinary people pay, while the rich and foreign investors pay almost no tax. And to press for foreign investors to come in without any policy to prepare Timorese people to be able to work in the sectors that foreigners develop, if it happens, is the same as pawning the whole country.

But will you be able to do much as president in the East Timorese system?

I am also confident that the Socialist Party will increase its representation in the parliament. But the key thing is that as president it would be possible to speak directly to the whole people. Our fundamental priority would be to promote direct participation in politics by the whole people. Every kind of people's organisation must be supported and developed. There must be mechanisms — that is organisations — that allow for every single person to become involved in the decision-making process and in keeping watch over the implementation of decisions.

This is the only way we can create a culture of political leadership in the service of the people and the nation rather than in the service of friends and family. It is also the only way to get rid of crony and thug politics. The parliament has already passed a law providing a pension for life for members of parliament. Meanwhile there is no pension for veterans of the guerrilla struggle, just medals. We need proper pensions for our civil servants as well. But we are for repealing the lifelong pension for members of parliament.

The factionalism of the political elite seems to be extreme now?

Yes, and it has developed very sharply in the armed forces. There has been a long history of internal conflict in the army going right back to 1975. This exploded again in 2006 over issues related to facilities, promotions and other personal interests, but it was put forward as if it was about defending the nation and state. Then [former PM Mari] Alkatiri supported the army high command while [President] Xanana Gusmao and Horta supported the "petitioners" who were raising grievances. Now the situation seems to be reversed. Xanana and Horta seem to be close to the army leadership and have ordered the Australian forces to go after the "petitioners" and the other dissident group under Alfredo Reinado.

So will they keep going after Reinado and the "petitioners'?

Now they seem to be offering an amnesty to Reinado if he surrenders his weapons. They realise they are losing support in the western districts. There is a lot of anti-Xanana graffiti now in the western parts of Dili. Xanana is not standing for president, instead it is Horta. But if Horta doesn't win it will be the end also for Xanana and his proposed new party. Meanwhile, Fretilin is less and less popular, especially given the failure of the government's rice policy. Many youth are looking for an alternative and some look to Reinado, especially in the western areas. If Xanana and Horta can't win back that support they will be wiped out in the coming elections.

How do you assess the role of the Australian forces in these developments?

I hope you and others will call on the Australian government to make sure the Australian forces only play a mediating role here. They shouldn't be taking sides in domestic Timorese political struggles.

[Max Lane is a lecturer in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.]