It is an unusual legacy for Fretilin to continue to be viewed as being the divisive face of Timorese politics (largely on the basis of the events surrounding the social and political collapse of 2006).

Two of the primary factors leading up to that collapse were the Fretilin government’s decision in early 2005 that religious education in schools would be voluntary rather than mandatory, and the dissension within the military that led by late 2005 to a “strike” by (if I recall correctly) about 400 soldiers. The Catholic church’s 19-day shut-down of Dili’s main waterfront thoroughfare in April 2005 was a critical spark for what was to follow.

What were the divisive tendencies? Primarily, they were President Xanana Gusmao’s speech to the soldiers that fanned their opposition to the Fretilin government, particularly once Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri took what may have been the only tenable step by that time and sacked them, and President Gusmao’s appearance on the platform of the Catholic blockade under such signs as “Alkatiri comunista”, as the church’s leadership trucked in hundreds of people to swell the protest and demand Alkatiri’s removal (and mandate Catholic education in government schools).

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Standing behind the President at the church’s anti-government rally was the government’s Foreign Affairs minister, Dr Ramos Horta, who didn’t resign until the forces against Alkatiri had better rallied more than a year later.

President Gusmao (between adult Jesus and Mary) and Foreign Minister Ramos Horta (second right from baby Jesus) on the platform of the Catholic Church’s call for the removal of Prime Minister Alkatiri and implementation of mandatory Catholic education in government schools (R Johnson: April 28, 2005).

Following the subsequent 2006 collapse, allegations of Alkatiri and his ministerial allies being responsible for violations including distributing weapons concluded little if any such evidence, but evidence of Gusmao-aligned forces (including, as Professor Damien Kingsbury notes, Presidential contender Taur Matan Ruak) being strongly implicated — a 2006 Four Corners program did considerable damage to Alkatiri at that time, and was, as I recall it, subsequently discredited in this regard. Serious calls for prosecutions seemed to dissipate once it was understood that the primary perpetrators were largely non-Fretilin and associated with the new government.

By the 2007 elections, there appeared to be some similarity between the Timorese political landscape and that of Nicaragua from 1989: a party of national liberation disapproved of across Western/conservative fronts versus an uneasy mix of political aspirants united only by their opposition to Fretilin/Sandinistas.

The divisive force comprising the anti-Fretilin “coalition” seems to be a shaky and unsustainable nexus. While Ruak may be seen as divisive, it’s not so clear why that is true of Francisco Guterres (either personally or as a Fretilin leader — can you be both “benign” and “divisive”?).

The final outcome of the presidential election may depend upon whether political leaders united by their divisiveness can keep it going just one more month.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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