Socialists prepare for parliamentary elections

"The PST has increased its vote slightly on its results in 2000", Avelino Coelho da Silva, secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Timor, told Green Left Weekly by telephone from Dili. Coelho was the PST's candidate in the country's April 9 presidential election, the final results of which will be officially announced by the National Election Commission (CNE) on April 16.

Preliminary results suggest that the ruling Fretilin party's Francisco "Lu'olo" Guterres received 29% of the votes cast, while Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta, running as an independent, received 23% and Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo of the Democratic Party 19%. This will require that a run-off ballot be held between Guterres and Horta on May 9.

The Timorese Social Democratic Association's Francisco Xavier do Amaral, a founding member of Fretilin and East Timor's first president, received 12%. The only female candidate, Lucia Maria Lobato of the Social Democratic Party, received almost 10%. Coelho said he had received about 3% of the 357,766 votes cast.

Complaints of irregularities have been lodged by five of the eight candidates, including Coelho. Horta has accused Fretilin supporters, including police officers, of intimidating voters to back the party's candidate. Fretilin's secretary-general Mari Alkatiri has rejected Horta's claims. There was a 68% voter turn out. While CNE officials have conceded that there were many "inconsistencies" in the presidential election, including discrepancies between the number of voters and the numbers of votes cast, they have rejected calls for recounts.

Referring the parliamentary elections scheduled for June, Coelho said: "If we work hard over the next few months, and put forward some of our best cadre to stand as members of parliament, we may be able to win 3 or 4 seats, perhaps more, in the parliament". The PST currently has one member of parliament.

"We have a long struggle ahead", said Coelho. "Symbols and personalities, rather than policies, still hold a lot of influence in the mass consciousness. None of the three presidential candidates who have emerged on top campaigned around any platform for national development. They concentrated on stories of the past struggle for East Timor's independence and tried to associate themselves with past symbols, or with symbols connected with the Catholic Church."

Coelho explained how his campaigners had been heartened by the good response they had received at public meetings and rallies, "But this has not yet turned into a strong political consciousness", he cautioned. "In the areas where our vote has increased, it is a result of genuine political identification and agreement with our platform. Ideology and platform did not play a big role in these elections. All the larger parties have more-or-less the same political character."

According to Coelho, the drop in the Fretilin vote to half its numbers from the 2000 election reflects a growing disaffection with the government. "But this disillusion is most likely to be focussed on the leading figures" rather than the Fretilin party, which continues to trade on its role in the 1975-98 struggle for independence first against Portugal and then against Indonesia. Fretilin derives its name from the Portuguese words for "Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor".

"There will be blame apportioned to Alkatiri and Luolo within Fretilin", said Coelho. "But if they keep these leaders, the discontent may continue to grow and also be aimed at Fretilin as well.

"The people's loyalties here are clearly very fluid. It is not for certain, for example, how people who supported losing candidates will vote in the next round. When platform and ideology is not operating as big factors in political consciousness, other factors can come into play in an arbitrary way. We will just have to wait and see."

Coelho added that the PST would now be concentrating on selecting its parliamentary candidates. "We have made some steps forward but we have a lot of work to do. We must be patient. We are a very small force and, unlike some others, we are committed to building up our party without becoming dependent on the finances of the European NGOs and other similar institutions."