Region: East Timor - A Predictable Landslide Victory For a Reluctant Candidate


James Dunn

The outcome of East Timor's first presidential election came as no surprise. Jose Alexandre Gusmao, better known as Xanana, has won a landslide victory, picking up 82.6 per cent of the votes. The election was a test for both the Timorese and the United Nations mission, with about 900 international monitors observing the voting at over 900 polling booths. Observers reported the result as a triumph, both for the Timorese and the UN, with very few irregularities in a non-compulsory election in which over 86 per cent of registered voters participated.

There was never any doubt about the outcome. Xanana has long been a national hero, a leader regarded by the international community as an Asian Mandela. The result confirms his status as the most popular of East Timor's leaders. His sole rival, Xavier do Amaral, also enjoyed a degree of popularity, as the Fretilin president of the ill-fated Democratic Republic of East Timor, proclaimed in November 1975 - a desperate measure in the face of an Indonesian invasion. Both Xanana and Xavier spent years in captivity, but it was the former whose leadership credentials blossomed during his years in a Javanese prison.

Xanana held a relatively minor position as a Fretilin guerrilla fighter in 1975. He emerged as a leader in the late seventies, following the collapse of the armed resistance, led by the courageous Falintil commander, Nicolau Lobato until he was killed in 1978 by TNI troops under the infamous Major Yunus Yosfiah and Captain Prabowo.

Xanana moved among the demoralised but still determined population, and accepted the challenge of reviving the Falintil resistance in response to popular demand. He soon realised, however, that easing the suffering of his people called for political leadership skills rather than military exploits. His stature grew and he continued to be acknowledged as Falintil's leader even after his capture by Indonesian troops in 1992, a status TNI commanders were themselves forced to recognise.

Gusmao's experience as a negotiator and his passionate interest in conciliation and social justice transformed him into a kind of pacifist. His efforts with Indonesians as well as East Timorese have won him many friends in Indonesia, as well as great respect in East Timor, and the admiration of the UN mission.

The East Timorese will have great expectations of Xanana as their national father figure when he becomes president on 20 May, and when the new nation formally comes into existence. However, under the new constitution the president's powers are quite limited, and his people's expectations of his role may well bring him into conflict with the Fretilin-dominated Government and Legislative Assembly. While Fretilin is still widely respected for its role in resisting the Indonesian occupation, many Timorese are uncomfortable with its dominant position in the Parliament, which, some feel, is not conducive to democracy, and could lead to a one-party state. East Timor abounds with impressive leaders, including Bishop Belo, Jose Ramos Horta, and Mario Carrascalao. Mari Alkatiri, presently the Chief Minister, will almost certainly become the new nation's first prime minister.

Xanana will need his reconciliation skills in dealing with the government, which will have to grapple with the urgent economic tasks facing the country, as well as with sensitive foreign policy issues. It may well be forced to make unpopular decisions, which in turn could lead to strong public pressures on the President. The Legislative Assembly, which will become East Timor's Parliament on independence, is dominated by Fretilin, which has 55 of its 88 seats. While the relationship between the presidency and the executive is set out in the new constitution, it will take time, patience and compromise for the boundaries to be worked out.

Speculation about a political crisis has resulted from some friction that has surfaced between Xanana and the leaders of Fretilin. The departure of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) will leave a huge gap in income - it is predicted that economic growth will fall from last year's 20 percent to around zero. Although they have a new constitutional system, East Timorese leaders are far from inexperienced and should be able to avert a serious crisis. They are all deeply conscious of the need to maximise unity in the first years of the new nation, and East Timor will continue to enjoy substantial support from its donor consortium. They are also acutely aware that serious disunity could tempt the covert intervention of certain Indonesian military commanders who are still smarting after their humiliating withdrawal from East Timor in 1999.

WATCHPOINT: A successful transition to independence in East Timor will depend on the capacity of the leaders to avoid disunity.


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