East Timor's Test
By Aubrey BelfordMarch 15, 2012
A truly independent future for East Timor depends on its upcoming election going smoothly.
Hyped up on stage in front of thousands of cheering supporters - some packed on the ground, others teetering in tree branches - Francisco Guterres isn't going to let the symbolism go to waste.
One of a dozen candidates vying to become East Timor's president in first-round voting this Saturday, Guterres, popularly known as Lu Olo, has chosen for his campaign's last big hurrah to rally at Tasi Tolu. If any spot sums up tiny East Timor's outsized history of suffering, struggle and hope, this tousled seaside patch of sand, grass and hills west of Dili is a good prospect.
East Timor's Presidential Elections
During Indonesia's grindingly brutal 24-year occupation, the bodies of killed independence fighters were dumped here; in 1989, Pope John Paul II spoke here, drawing crowds and global attention to East Timor's plight; and in 2002, this spot was where an independent East Timor was celebrated.
Now it's like a traffic jam and a rock concert combined, with hundreds of trucks and motorbikes and surging, rowdy crowds of the flag-bearing and body-painted.
In short order, over cries of "Viva!", Guterres, of the opposition Fretilin party, nods to the past before talking of the future. "There are only two points I'd like to make here," he says, "peace and stability.
"If we keep making conflict, this small country will continue to be a victim instead of a leader."
Conciliation is a common line - and a reassuring one - being made in East Timor these days. Saturday's voting is the first round in what is likely to be a three-stage process of elections, culminating in a highly contested parliamentary poll in June.
At stake, particularly in the parliamentary election, is who gets to run this country of just over one million people. The question has led to plenty of suffering in the past.
Yet for once, for the time being at least, this doesn't seem to be causing everyone to be reaching for the smelling salts. You might even say the mood is upbeat.
That's not to say this isn't a testing year. After chaotic fighting among factions in the security forces in 2006 killed 37 people and pushed more than 100,000 from their homes - and took the state to the brink of collapse - East Timor has been under the wing of a United Nationsstabilisation mission and a force of about 460 Australian and New Zealand troops.
If the country can pull off a fair poll and a constitutional handover of power with little or no violence, an international withdrawal is expected to follow. If it can't, then true, unequivocal independence could jump again out of its grasp.
"I think the Timorese government want the UN to go," says Gordon Peake, an East Timor expert at the Australian National University. "They think they're capable of running their own affairs unhindered, and I think there's a financial reason, budgetary reasons, for why people in New York want the UN mission to close up and go.
"They're both sort of dependent on each other for success. The UN for a successful election, to get out; and the Timorese for a successful election, to get rid of them," Peake says.
Despite the slew of candidates, Saturday's poll is expected to be a three-way contest pitting the incumbent, José Ramos-Horta, against Guterres and Taur Matan Ruak, the former military chief. If no candidate gets an outright majority, voting will run into a second round.
Guterres has traded on his own past as a fighter against Indonesia to build support, as well as relying on a significant portions of the left-wing Fretilin party's base. Matan Ruak, also a veteran, has pitched himself as an independent candidate, drawing support from across the political spectrum. Matan Ruak got a critical boost recently when Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão dumped Ramos-Horta and threw the support of his ruling coalition party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, or CNRT, behind Matan Ruak. In campaigning, the two main challengers have aggressively built mass rallies around the country. Ramos-Horta, while still making time to campaign, has appeared more aloof. In Dili, his posters are a rarity.
There are plenty of reasons to fear things going awry. A smattering of news reports have - if the eye-rolling around Dili is to be believed - vigorously played up East Timor's many underlying fracture lines.
The country is still desperately poor and very, very young. Unemployed men loiter on the streets of Dili, while in the countryside people overwhelmingly live off subsistence farming. People often talk darkly of the lingering east-west divisions that burst into violence in 2006 and of "martial arts" gangs of disaffected youth around the country. Political rhetoric is harsh and unforgiving, and politics among the tiny elite is intensely personal.
On top of that, and in huge contrast to the past, East Timor is also now awash with billions of dollars in oil and gas money. The outcome of the parliamentary election will decide who gets the run of a mounting stash of money - 2012's spending rose more than a quarter, to more than USD1.67 billion - and the power that comes with it to award lucrative infrastructure contracts.
Few ordinary people, however, have seen any economic benefit so far; almost half the population lives below the poverty line and inflation is running at about 12.4 per cent
Yet for the immediate future at least, the promise of all that wealth, and a general calming of personal animosities, has had a soothing effect, says Cillian Nolan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
There remains the potential for violence to "snowball", he says, particularly around June when the parliamentary election will be held. "I think Timor-Leste's increasing wealth means people do have more of a stake in continuing the status quo and making sure that stability continues," Nolan says. [Timor-Leste is the official name of the country.]
At Tasi Tolu, the massive crowd that has turned out to see Guterres is scathing of the current government, but there's little obvious sense of things getting beyond the verbal. Security is light. A contingent of white UN police cars, their windshields covered in protective metal mesh, drives back into Dili even before Guterres takes to the stage.
Mario Alves, a shirtless 20-year-old agriculture student at the rally, is biting in his criticism. Gusmao's CNRT-led government has simply handed the petro-windfall to its cronies, he says, while "the country has seen no real progress".
But compared to the divisions back in 2006, things are much better, Alves says. "Timorese are much more united."
Under a tree, sitting on his motorbike, is Venancio Torres, a 35-year-old schoolteacher who says he was a pro-guerilla activist in Dili during the Indonesian occupation. He says he lost many friends during militia violence unleashed by Indonesia after the Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence in a 1999 UN-backed referendum.
Now he's a partisan of Fretilin. And he's definitely not a fan of all of the rest of East Timor's political elite.
"I'm not someone who's come from outside. I was born here, lived here and struggled here until we won our independence," he says. "I know exactly who was in the struggle and who wasn't; who was a traitor, who was an opportunist, and who was a hero. I know exactly.
"We're talking about politics, not science. But there is a possibility - I'm saying a possibility - that if our opponents lose they'll use violence," he says. "I can guarantee that we won't carry out violence because I know it wouldn't be the first time Fretilin has experienced loss," he adds, meaning the last election.
The key, he says, is learning to move on from the past, something he says he has done since 1999.
"As a human being who has been through bitter times, I'll never forget. But for peace, for a successful and brighter future, me and everyone else will get together."
East Timor's people are desperately poor but its government swimming in cash. So, is the country buying its way out of poverty, or into economic disaster? Read East Timor's Road: to Riches or Ruin here.