Timor-Leste: Pre-Election Nerves


Anna Powles

On April 9 2007 Timor-Leste will begin an electoral process that will potentially be the most significant expression of democracy that independence has offered in the nation's four-year history. Against the backdrop of the April and May 2006 crisis that plunged Timorese politics and society to its lowest point since 2002, Timorese will be voting - not for the birth of their inaugural government - but for a future based on the realities and challenges of governing within a fractured political and social system.

The hard facts of a weak state are laid bare across Dili. The camps of internally displaced remain sprawled through the mud and damaged buildings of the nation's capital almost ten months on. Their inhabitants - predominantly 'easterners' - shelter beneath tatty and worn UNHCR, Rotary and the International Organization for Migration and tarpaulins. In this squalid existence two alternative economies have arisen. The first forms the basis of daily survival. Markets have sprung up around the camps selling of fruit, vegetables, meat and goods replacing the central market destroyed during last year's crisis. The second is the emergence of a political economy which has further entrenched the displaced population. The inability of the Government to resolve the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) crisis and the refusal of those remaining IDPs to abandon the paradoxical security that displacement provides is classic brinkmanship with no clear solution in sight. The Government have recently admitted publicly that the IDP crisis is likely to continue until after the elections in May.

Moreover, the growing dissatisfaction towards the Government that has developed as a consequence of ongoing communal and gang-related violence has been further fuelled by chronic shortages of the most basic and fundamental of commodities: rice. As the price of rice escalated by 200% during February, leaving the majority of citizens unable to afford a staple food, coupled by severe food insecurity in rural Timor, the strain of disenchantment threatens to explode at the feet of the Fretilin Government whose sights are set firmly on the elections. The Government has signed deals with Indonesia, China, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam to import rice over the next two to three weeks. This will ease the pressure but not solve the impending food insecurity in the districts and do much to dispel the rumours on the streets that the Government is distributing rice exclusively to card-carrying members of the Fretilin Party.

Attempting to instil a veneer of security is the United Nations peacekeeping mission comprising of approximately 1000 civilian police (UNPol) supported by 1000 Australian Defence Force personnel (not under UN command). By their own admission, the combined International Security Force is stretched with the military recently having assumed primacy over the civilian police for 72 hours in an attempt to control the escalating violence. During that period two Timorese IDPs were shot by Australian soldiers at the Airport IDP Camp resulting in the strongest anti-Australian feeling to emerge since Australia's deployment in May 2006.

Voting in the presidential election begins on April 9 with the date of parliamentary elections to be announced shortly after. Incumbent Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, formally announced his intention to run on the weekend of February 26 at a rally in Laga, in the eastern district of Baucau, stating that he would not be running if Timor was 'free, stable and prosperous'. Current President, Xanana Gusmao, has indicated that he will run in the parliamentary elections, a decision which will reconnect him with the Timorese people who have increasingly felt isolated from the man who lead the nation to independence. Individuals aside, it will be the battle of the major parties in Timorese politics that will ultimately determine who holds the power for the next five years. Despite the popular inroads that parties such as the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the Democratic Party (PD) are making, all indications suggest that Fretilin will retain its dominance at the ballot box.

WATCHPOINT: In the pre- and post-election period, will the Government of Timor-Leste and the United Nations Mission Integrated in Timor-Leste be able to control pre-election campaigning from destabilizing the country further?


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