Campaigning has started for elections in East Timor which will determine whether this small impoverished country can live up to the hopes many still have for it — or whether it becomes just another failed state.

The elections follow the internecine conflict that wracked East Timor in 2006. Centralised neglect contributed to a widespread sense of alienation and desperation, and the willingness of gangs to engage in violence has since become endemic.

Behind the violence lies cynical elite manipulation of the gangs. The outcomes of last year’s political conflict is that, after the Indonesian era, violence is again seen as a viable political tool.

Many of East Timor’s elites have only the barest direct connections with the people, and have shown they are prepared to use the force of gangs rather than force of argument to defend or expand their political turf. The gangs, and their victims, have become pawns in a contest not over policy or ideology but access to wealth and power.

Of the two coming elections, those for the president on 9 April are less critical than the parliamentary elections, expected to be held in June. In order to curb the excesses of a potentially authoritarian president, presidential powers are limited by East Timor’s constitution. Real power lies with the parliament.

As a result of widespread political and economic alienation, the ruling Fretilin party will struggle to maintain its absolute majority in the parliamentary elections. Its biggest hope of retaining a majority comes from its access to government funds and vote buying.

Fretilin also now split between the “Maputo group” of leaders who spent their exile in Mozambique, and a reformist faction, which threatens to split if former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri insists on leading them to the polls. The challenge to Fretilin will come from a coalition of opposition parties, including the Democratic Party (PD), the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Fretilin’s precursor, the Timorese Association of Social Democrats (ASDT).

The other small parties, such as UDT, Trabalhista and the new Republican Party, may also join the coalition, but only after the elections. And to further complicate matters, the now anti-Fretilin Xanana Gusmao will not re-contest the presidency, but will establish his own party, the cleverly named CNRT (same as the combined organisation that stood in East Timor’s independence ballot in 1999). This will draw support from other parties, including Fretilin.

The most important outcome of the elections will be the extent to which the parties accept the results. Access to government funds and problems with voter registration will make a Fretilin victory difficult for the opposition to accept. Similarly, Fretilin’s “Maputo group” will be reluctant to give up power.

In the background, meanwhile, sits East Timor’s defence force, the F-FDTL, which holds civilian politics in barely disguised contempt and there is a real belief by many that, should the outcome of the elections result in more violence, it will stage a coup.

Such an event would cement East Timor’s position as a failed state, and reintroduce into East Timorese life many of those authoritarian qualities dispelled along with the Indonesian military in 1999.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey