East Timor’s ruling Fretilin party is being held responsible for five years of misgovernment and corruption.
The second-round win by José Ramos Horta for the largely ceremonial post of President of East Timor highlights the collapse in support for the ruling Marxist party, Fretilin, which has controlled East Timor since independence in 2002.
At the time of writing, when all votes had been counted, Horta secured 69 per cent of the vote in the second round, overwhelmingly defeating his Fretilin opponent, Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, who got about 31 per cent.
Between the first round (when there were eight candidates) and the second (when there were only two), Horta’s vote increased from 22 per cent to 69 per cent, a rise of 47 per cent; while Lu Olo’s increased from 28 per cent to 31 per cent, a rise of just 3 per cent.
The vote confirms that supporters of the pro-democracy opposition parties, principally the Democratic Party, the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) and the Social Democratic Party voted overwhelmingly for Horta, after Horta was endorsed by the leaders of these parties.
Most observers were pleasantly surprised at how tightly disciplined the party votes were. The result augurs well for the parliamentary election, due at the end of June, when all the parties will stand slates of candidates.
Not surprisingly, there was a slight decline in the number of people voting. The Fretilin vote changed little from the 112,000 received in the first round.
As with the first round of elections, there were allegations of election fraud, mainly from the far east of the island, which is the Fretilin heartland.
Komeg, a coalition of non-party organisations which recruited over 1,000 election monitors to be present at polling-centres across East Timor, reported that at one polling place, 200 ballot papers marked in favour of Lu Olo, the Fretilin candidate, were found in a ballot box in the Lospalos district before voting started.
In a few other areas, Komeg observers were prevented from carrying out their observer function by being excluded from polling-centres.
After the Presidential election, attention now turns to the parliamentary elections, to be held at the end of June. If the same voting pattern emerges, it is unlikely that any single party will secure the 50 per cent of votes needed to form a government.
Under the Constitution, the party or parties with a majority of seats will form the next government and elect the Prime Minister. In the first round, the main pro-democracy parties secured a combined total of over 43 per cent of the vote, giving them a springboard for the parliamentary election round.
The widely-held disaffection with Fretilin is a consequence of five years of misgovernment, corruption and a ruthless determination to control which together have left the economy of East Timor virtually paralysed.
The last straw for most people was East Timor’s descent into anarchy last year, following the Prime Minister’s sacking of about 600 soldiers, known as “the petitioners”, who had asked President Xanana Gusmao to investigate systematic discrimination in the armed forces.
When Xanana was overseas, the then-Prime Minister, Fretilin’s Mari Alkatiri, sacked the 600 soldiers, and his Interior Minister armed a death squad with military weapons to assassinate leading opponents of the Fretilin regime.
In the ensuing chaos, over 30 people were killed, homes were gutted and many thousands were forced to flee for their lives to churches, schools and religious houses.
It was only the presence of 2,000 international troops and police, most of whom came from Australia, Portugal and New Zealand, which restored order to the troubled capital.
Despite this, tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes, and are still living in tents a year later – including about 30,000 in Dili living as refugees in their own land.
Meanwhile, the economy is in meltdown: public infrastructure such as roads is poorly maintained, electricity and even rubbish-collection are unreliable, and unemployment in the cities is massive.
As there are no social services, most people live a precarious existence; malnutrition is widespread; and there is a critical shortage of cash for even simple transactions.
An uncertain element is the influence of the retiring President, Xanana Gusmao, who has established his own political party, CNRT, to contest the parliamentary elections.
Gusmao has a very high international reputation, but it is unclear whether he maintains such a high level of support in East Timor, following his ineffective role in addressing the crisis in 2006.
He endorsed José Ramos Horta in the first round of the Presidential election, when Horta secured just 22 per cent of the vote.
The challenge for the pro-democracy parties is to hold together their supporters for the parliamentary elections, and then to form an effective coalition to govern in the interests of all the people.
– Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.