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Still struggling for independence: elections in Timor Leste

By Tim Anderson - posted Friday, 27 April 2007

Independence is not an end, it is the beginning of self rule. Kofi Annan, May 2002.

Australian representations of elections in Timor Leste have reflected the wishful thinking of an elite. Media coverage of the Presidential elections focused almost exclusively on the pro-Australian candidate, Jose Ramos Horta, and commentaries over a future government keenly search for a Xanana-led coalition that might upset the currently Fretilin dominated parliament.

The fact that Francisco (“Lu Olo”) Guterres, the man who won the first Presidential round, was not seriously profiled by any Australian media outlet should give us pause to reflect on the quality of information provided. To win the first round while opposed by the incumbent president, the incumbent prime minster, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the Australian elite is quite an achievement. It shows that Fretilin as a force for independence still resonates strongly with the East Timorese people.


There was a great deal of media speculation over possible election fraud, pointing a finger at Fretilin. This was remarkable given the high level of international observers and the open anti-Fretilin bias of the electoral authority. Electoral chief and Catholic Church representative Martinho Gusmao publicly endorsed opposition leader Fernando Araujo before the election, then made a false claim that votes in pro-Fretilin Baucau were massively over-subscribed. European Union observers contradicted him.

What of Lu Olo? He was a guerilla leader for the entire resistance period, Speaker of Parliament for over five years and remains a loyal member of Fretilin. Mari Alkatiri, the former prime minister reviled by the Australian media, is still General Secretary of the party. So while the coup attempt and foreign intervention have undoubtedly shaken confidence in Fretilin, the first round has demonstrated that no other party in Timor Leste has anything close to its support.

Recall that an alliance of sorts was formed at the time of the first Presidential election of April 2002, where Fretilin agreed to support Xanana Gusmao, provided that he ran as an independent. Xanana’s only opposition was Francisco Xavier do Amaral from the ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association). Fretilin had already gained an outright majority in the August 2001 elections for a constituent assembly, which went on to become the nation’s first parliament.

Prior to the 2006 crisis, a major political achievement was the effective combination of the strategic vision of Alkatiri’s Fretilin, the charisma of Xanana and the diplomacy of Ramos Horta. Despite a tiny budget (increasing in 2007, with oil revenue) they began the institutions of a modern state, expanded education, rehabilitated their rice fields, developed a major health program and clawed back several billion dollars in oil and gas revenue from the Howard Government.

Alkatiri attracted most Australian hostility, particularly over the protracted oil and gas talks. Ramos Horta was the weak link. I have detailed elsewhere (Timor Leste: the Second Australian Intervention) how he attempted three compromises, all of which would have pleased Howard and Downer but resulted in less revenue for his country. Little wonder he emerged as the Australian favourite.

Xanana maintained an aloofness from party politics, a stance which aided his major political project of reconciliation. He forgave the Indonesian generals (despite a lack of repentance on their side) and attempted to reintegrate former militia members into local communities.


However this aloofness evaporated in the crisis, as Xanana indirectly supported coup leader Alfredo Reinado and bitterly attacked Fretilin. As president he demanded the resignation of Mari Alkatiri, using a video copy of a notorious ABC program which had relied on the word of one of Reinado’s allies to accuse Alkatiri of arming a “hit squad” to kill his political opponents, and of having already murdered a number of them. A UN investigation into the crisis (Report of the United Nations Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste (PDF 439KB)) later discredited this story.

The Australian media, however, clings to the “hit squad” theory, gaining some comfort from the conviction of Alkatiri ally and former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato for the offence of distributing police weapons to civilians. Lobato, appealing his conviction, maintains these acts were justified during a coup attempt, when the police force had disintegrated.

With coup leader Reinado still at large, but apparently no longer considered a political asset or a threat by either Xanana or the Australians, the politics of Timor Leste seem to have returned to a somewhat more “normal” footing. But it is a political process badly damaged by violence, dislocation and mistrust.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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