Voting to escape the past

A decade after independence and with UN mission coming to an end, East Timor goes to the polls, writes Simon Roughneen

IN a decade-old country dominated by a cadre of prestigious former freedom fighters, younger politicians sometimes find it difficult to make themselves heard.

An hour’s bone-jarring drive from capital Dili, up winding mountain roads through some of East Timor’s coffee-growing hills, Fernanda Borges tries to woo voters in Aileu during a final campaign event ahead of tomorrow’s parliamentary election.

“There needs to be more investment in infrastructure, particularly roads, and the next government needs to better allocate its spending,” says Borges, who is confident that her National Unity Party (PUN) can at least double its current three MPs out of a total of 65 in East Timor’s parliament.

The energy-rich country, known officially as Timor Leste, has about $10bn (€8bn) in oil and gas earnings, and statistics portray a middle-income country. However, these sectors do not create jobs, and the numbers do not reflect rural poverty — possibly the worst in Asia — for the 80% of the 1m or so Timorese who live in the countryside and survive on subsistence agriculture.

Tomorrow’s vote marks a watershed in the country’s history, a decade after independence. East Timor broke with a quarter-century of harsh Indonesian occupation in 1999 and declared statehood in 2002 after a three-year UN stewardship, with that mission set to finally leave the country in early 2013.

Campaigning candidates have been telling voters how they will spend the oil and gas money, but mostly have been paying lip-service to the non-energy economy, with scant discussion of how to develop East Timor’s potential-laden coffee and tourism sectors.

Government spending has been criticised by some analysts, and Juvenal Dias of La’o Hamutuk, a Dili-based research organisation, said the country could be digging itself into a hole as the oil and gas runs out and as a youthful population looks for work. “Now we are struggling to find work for the 15,000 people who enter the job market each year. By 2024 it will be twice that,” he warned.

Oil and gas reserves could run out as soon as 2024, meaning the next government will have to spend better, says Fernanda Borges, who at 43 is a generation younger than most of Timor Leste’s resistance-era heroes who fought a gruelling back-foot jungle campaign against a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation which killed up to 180,000 people.

One of those icons, Xanana Gusmao, is outgoing prime minister and hopes to return to office after tomorrow’s vote, which could see an even split between his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party and Fretilin, which has the most sitting MPs.

Fretilin held a final rally on Tuesday at Tasi Tolu outside Dili, near a 6m-high statue of Pope John Paul II, who celebrated huge open-air Mass at the site when visiting East Timor in 1989, and is recalled as the sole world leader to visit the Catholic Timorese during Indonesian rule.

Campaigning has been peaceful so far and on the whole, the country is stable, for now, after a turbulent history. The country nearly lapsed into civil war in 2006, when 10% of the population was displaced amid mutiny by around one-third of the army and fighting between the rest of the military and the police.

Now opposition leader, Fretilin head Mari Alkatiri was prime minister before the 2006 fighting led to his ousting. He is hopeful of regaining that post ahead of tomorrow’s vote. “I am 100% sure we will win,” he says.

Like Gusmao, Alkatiri is one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes policymakers in Timorese politics, among a handful of men who have been in the public eye since Liam Cosgrave was taoiseach in Ireland. However, probably the best-known of all East Timor’s ancien regime is José Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel peace prize winner and former president, minister, and prime minister.

Unusually perhaps, he is campaigning for two parties: The Democrat Party (PD), which is part of Gusmao’s governing coalition, and the Timorese Social Democrat Association.

“I think they [PD] will be a constructive partner in any government,” says Ramos-Horta in an interview at his beach-side residence close to where he narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2008.

Ramos-Horta advocates a “grand coalition” taking in all of East Timor’s main political parties and players after the election, and prime minister Gusmao has made similar suggestions. Alktatiri does not rule out the option of a deal with the current governing parties, or with any party for that matter. “We will make a coalition on a pragmatic basis,” he says.

That might squeeze out some of the country’s smaller up-and-coming parties and politicians. Another of that new generation — but one who symbolises the unique mix of tragedy, turbulence, and hope that characterises the young country — is Angelita Pires.

Her one-time boyfriend Alfredo Reinado was shot dead in Feb 2008, after leading the group of army rebels who broke with the military during the 2006 crisis. According to the official version of events, Reinado came to Dili that morning to try and kill then president Ramos-Horta, a charge Reinado supporters deny.

Despite the painful past, Pires is trying to bridge the political generation gap, hoping to win a seat in tomorrow’s elections on the war veteran party Undertim ticket. She says that East Timor’s A-list politicians such as Alkatiri and Gusmao have celebrity status, which makes it difficult to challenge them.

“We don’t have sports stars, we don’t have movie stars, so those who fought the Indonesian occupation are our celebrities,” says Pires. “They have earned the respect of Timorese people, but it is also time to move on.”

Back in the hills outside Dili, 30-year-old PUN candidate Faviula Monteiro tells voters of her party’s plans to improve East Timor’s poor-to-non-existent health service.

“Before I was happy to work on public health issues,” she says. But, lamenting that 10 years of independence have not yielded much improvements for East Timor’s people, her perspective changed recently. “I want to try change things through politics,” she says.

It seems unlikely, however, that this election will result in a younger generation coming to prominence in East Timor — at least not yet.

Some leaders, it seems, are aware of the need for a handover. Discussing post-vote scenarios, Mari Alkatiri says: “I want to appeal to Xanana and José Ramos-Horta to sit together with me after the election, to prepare conditions for leaders of a new generation to take power sooner rather than later.”

* Simon Roughneen was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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