East Timor can finally look forward to a bright new dawn after its historic election

Saturnina da Silva doesn’t have a name for her baby boy yet, born just 12 hours before Saturday’s parliamentary election in the tropical half-island nation.

Her voice faint, the 24-year-old raised an ink-covered index finger, signalling that she had voted — from her hospital bed, no less. With an understandably tired looking smile, Da Silva jokes that giving birth at this time saved her the five-hour bus trip to vote in her home village in Viqueque in the south-east of the half-island country, which is also known as Timor-Leste.

More seriously, she says that “it was important for me to vote, even today, even though I am so tired, as this is for the future of the country”.

Also looking to the future is Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, the Timorese independence fighter icon and outgoing prime minister. His CNRT party topped the poll in Saturday’s election with 36.6%, just under 173,000 votes. Yesterday afternoon he spoke for an hour to staff party headquarters in Dili, thanking them for their effort but expressing disappointment that his party failed to attain the overall majority that would allow it govern alone, after heading a fractious 2007-12 coalition government made up of five parties.

“We will discuss among ourselves in coming days, we have at least three options,” said Gusmao, as party colleagues whooped and chanted in the tarp-covered backyard of the party office. His party is likely to get 29 to 31 seats, less than the 33 needed for a majority, but putting it in a strong position to form a coalition with one of the other four or five parties that will exceed the 3% support threshold for getting seats in the Timorese legislature.

Nearest rival Fretilin will get 23-25 seats, which means it would have to either make an unlikely deal with Gusmao’s erstwhile coalition partners, the Democratic Party (PD), or, as former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta has suggested, form a big tent coalition with Gusmao, which would effectively leave East Timor without an opposition.

Gusmao’s stature as independence leader seems to have helped his party increase its share of the vote, up from 18 seats in 2007. During Indonesian rule, Gusmao’s resistance leadership inspired bravery among other Timorese, tales of which came out on Saturday during otherwise innocuous polling day interviews.

Outside a sun-blasted polling station near Dili’s tiny international airport, Paulinho Lay reluctantly tells his story. “I was the one who brought the first foreign journalist to meet Xanana Gusmao in the jungle near Ainaro during the resistance.

“It was in 1990, it was such a difficult and dangerous mission,” he recalls. “People risked their lives — not just me — to help the reporter to get into Timor-Leste and to interview Xanana.”

He says they wanted to raise awareness of the Timor cause internationally, 15 years after Indonesia’s invasion of the former Portuguese colony.

“After the interview was broadcast, the Indonesians figured out that it was my car that was used to take the journalist to the mountains,” he says.

He fled, hoping to get to Portugal, but didn’t feel secure enough to try to board a flight via Indonesia. “I hid out in Jakarta for 9 years,” he says. “I came back to my homeland in 1999.”

That was the year Timorese voted to secede from Indonesia, after a brutal 24-year occupation that was never recognised under international law despite the death of around one-third of East Timor’s population. Now 10 years into independence — the UN ran East Timor from 1999 to 2002 — Timorese are at a decisive point in their history, with questions over how to manage and spend the country’s oil and gas revenues, currently over $10bn, from which almost 90% of government spending will come this year.

Also looking to the future is Fernanda Borges, outspoken leader of the National Unity Party (PUN) and, until now at least, considered one of East Timor’s next generation political leaders. PUN went into the election with three seats after winning 4.5% of the vote in 2007. This time, however, Borges’s party dipped to under 1%, losing all its seats. Twenty-one parties contested the election, with a 74% turnout but with 20% of all votes going to parties such as PUN that failed to top the 3% bar for getting a seat.

While the election was peaceful, with no sign of ballot box cheating, Borges alleges that a lot of money was spent by bigger parties, ensuring that smaller ones were squeezed. “From what I have heard, there was a lot of vote-buying in the districts,” she says. “CNRT had a lot of money to throw around, as did some of the newer, smaller parties, and it is not clear where this came from.”

Borges says such sharp practice does not augur well for a tiny young democracy that is for now highly dependent on natural resources. “If we think we can act like this, it will cost us in our future development,” she says, adding, “we need to be clean.”

The last East Timor government was hit with several corruption allegations, including a jail sentence for the former justice minister, as increasing oil and gas revenues saw a fourfold jump in government spending.

If returned as prime minister, Gusmao says he will use the energy largesse to improve East Timor’s cratered, winding mountain roads and upgrade the country’s power and clean water supply. When asked about criticism that his previous government spent too much money on the wrong things, he implores that “we need to invest now, while we can, otherwise we will remain stuck at this level, a poor country.”

* Reporting supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund


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