Continuing violence in the East Timor capital of Dili is threatening to derail the electoral process now underway. Following a relative lull in internecine conflict after last year’s political upheavals, violence is again escalating, with politically motivated gangs attacking each other and international police and peacekeepers.

The self-defence killing of two rioters by an Australian soldier late last week has escalated tensions between some of the gangs and the Australian military, prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to issue a strong warning against travel to East Timor. There have been renewed threats by the gangs that Australians will be specifically targeted.

Many within East Timor had hoped that the political climate would settle ahead of the elections, and that polls would provide a political solution to continuing tensions. However, an attack last week against the head of the Democratic Party, Fernando de Araujo, damaged such hopes. De Araujo escaped unharmed, although a party colleague was seriously injured and de Araujo’s car was badly damaged when it was attacked when passing by a Fretilin gathering.

The attack against de Araujo came just after announcing he would contest the presidential elections on 9 April. East Timor’s prime minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, has also announced he will contest the presidency, along with the Fretilin parliament speaker, Lu-Olo, and at least four others. Without an absolute majority to one candidate, the elections are expected to go to a second round run-off. Ramos-Horta and Lu-Olo are the favoured contenders.

The presidential elections are less important for the largely ceremonial post, but more as an indicator of support in the parliamentary elections, expected to be held in early July.

There is a widespread view that Fretilin’s support base has fallen, with many reformists with the party deserting to support President Xanana Gusmao’s new party, the Council for Timorese National Reconstruction (CNRT). This party name plays on the unifying CNRT that won East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, but replaces “Resistance” with “Reconstruction”.

However, hardliners within Fretilin believe the party’s historical “right” to govern has been undermined by a wide-ranging conspiracy, and is fighting back, both politically and through the gangs.

The UN and the East Timor Independent Election Commission are continuing preparations for the elections, but slow voter registration, problems with registering candidacy and violence and intimidation are putting the legitimacy of the elections in doubt.

If the results of the elections are not accepted by any of the political support bases, it will mean the prospect of further, and quite possibly worse, violence.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey