Global Policy Forum

Divided and Embattled East Timor to Elect a President


By Seth Mydans

New York Times
April 9, 2007

As it struggles to pull itself together as a functioning democracy, the tiny, young nation of East Timor is scheduled to hold a presidential election on Monday amid continuing violence, poverty and self-doubt. The election, for a largely ceremonial post, has exposed bitter personal rivalries as well as divisions among clans and regions. Poverty and unemployment have led to the spread of gangs and contributed to an atmosphere of instability and lawlessness. Tensions remain between an older, Portuguese-speaking elite and a younger generation educated during 24 years of Indonesian rule. The failure of independence to bring prosperity has added to a sense of futility and anger.

"This election is very important in the context of the crisis, that we are not a failed state," said the departing president, Xanana Gusmí£o, the charismatic independence leader who is expected to be a candidate for prime minister when parliamentary elections are held later this year. East Timor won independence from Indonesia through a referendum in 1999, and graduated from United Nations control to become an independent nation in 2002. Yet it has remained one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a political system marked more by turmoil than governance.

More than 522,000 people are eligible to vote Monday, although a runoff is likely if, as expected, none of the eight candidates wins the required majority. Along with the parliamentary election, the contests could keep East Timor in a state of instability for months to come. The most prominent of the candidates is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos-Horta, 57, a member of the Portuguese-speaking diaspora who led an overseas campaign for his country's independence and became its first foreign minister.

He became prime minister last year after a military mutiny and surge of violence that led more than 100,000 people to flee their homes and forced the incumbent, Mari Alkatiri, to resign. Although public resentment has built against the presence of international peacekeepers, Mr. Ramos-Horta has said he would ask them to stay on to ensure that "women, children, the elderly and students can walk free on the streets without fears of being attacked."

Among his strongest rivals is Francisco Guterres, a former guerrilla commander who is a member of Mr. Alkatiri's revolutionary Fretilin Party and who has served as parliamentary speaker. Another leading opponent is Fernando de Araujo, 44, the youngest of the candidates, who spent six years in an Indonesian prison along with Mr. Gusmí£o for leading a pro-independence resistance group. For some people, it seems, the country's problems may be beyond the grasp of any new leader.

"We don't have a culture of peace, we have a culture of war," said Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the former Roman Catholic bishop of Dili, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Ramos-Horta. "Since the 18th century we have been fighting each other. Fighting seems to be the only situation in which we are content. It is in our blood." Violence has accompanied the election campaign, as supporters of rival candidates have clashed. And signs of earlier unrest are not difficult to find. A 3,000-member international peacekeeping force, deployed a year ago when a military mutiny brought down the government and threatened to escalate into civil war, remains in place. The soldiers are still searching for a renegade officer who led the mutiny. About 37,000 displaced people remain in refugee shelters.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 after Portugal abruptly ended more than 400 years of colonial dominance. About 200,000 people died during the separatist insurgency and brutal Indonesian rule that followed. After the overwhelming vote for independence in 1999, the Indonesian military unleashed a revenge campaign of arson, killings and mass deportation carried out by local militias it had organized and armed. About 1,000 people died, and 250,000 more were forced across the border into the Indonesian territory of West Timor.

Independence meant the departure of the mostly Indonesian skilled technicians, civil servants and subsidies from the central government. The new nation of about 900,000 people remains, as Mr. Gusmí£o said, on the verge of becoming a failed state, with an average per capita income of less than the equivalent of a dollar a day, and with close to half the working-age population unemployed. Malnutrition and food shortages are widespread in a nation with few natural resources apart from rice and coffee, and with little foreign investment in businesses and manufacturing. A plague of locusts recently devoured about 11,120 acres of cropland west of the capital, Dili.

East Timor does have a nest egg of $1.2 billion in oil revenue locked in a special account in a bank in New York. Without a functioning bureaucracy capable of managing the oil revenues, and wary of the corruption that has ravaged other oil-rich developing nations, the government has placed the money in a fund for future use. But Mr. Gusmí£o has backed Mr. Ramos-Horta in making the money an election issue, saying it could be used to relieve some of the country's pressing problems. "Democracy will not work if the people are hungry," Mr. Gusmí£o said. "We have so much money in an account in New York, while here in Timor people are struggling and living in misery." Speaking to foreign reporters in Dili last week, he said the government could not postpone measures to address social needs or even hunger. "We used to promise people jobs, the creation of jobs," he said, a promise he himself often made in the difficult early days to calm restive crowds. "But they don't see light at the end of the tunnel."

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