Friday, May 18, 2007

By the company he keeps

My piece on the election of Jose-Ramos Horta in East Timor is up on the Labor Tribune site, along with this creepy photo. To me, the photo symbolises Horta's relationship with Australia's army and its masters in Canberra. I'd guess that it was snapped last June or July, when Horta and Xanana Gusmao accompanied Anzac troops around a riot-torn Dili urging their supporters to wait calmly for the distribution of emergency supplies of rice. The chronic failure of the Horta-led government to ensure an affordable supply of rice to the poor has been largely ignored by Western media, yet it is one of the major causes of the instability that continues to afflict East Timor.

On the Marxmail list, Aussie activist and scholar Tom O'Lincoln has responded to my take on Horta's victory:

A very useful article, but I'm inclined to challenge you on a few points. It's true that Ramos-Horta only won because the other parties backed him, so it's not as big a win for him as it seems. But it's certainly as big a defeat for Fretilin as it seems. They're still paying for having been in government when things fell apart last year; and more generally for presiding over years of poverty with no sign of a way out.

It's true that the foreign troops engaged in a certain amount of intimidation, but that hardly explains why Fretilin couldn't get more than 30% of the vote. It's true that there are elements of Timorese society turning against the foreign troops, but they're still a distinct minority -- or else Fretilin, which seems to have run an anti-Australian campaign, would surely have done better.

For this reason I predict Fretilin will not win a majority in the parliamentary elections. If they win a plurality, an anti-Fretilin coalition will form a government, at least initially. OK, I'm committed now; we'll see whether I end up with egg on my face. :-)

If we do see the consolidation of a Horta-Gusmao regime, I wonder whether Canberra and Wellington will commit serious economic resources to East Timor to ensure they survive. Without that, or even with it, the *medium*-term prospects for a more generalised hostillity to Australia and New Zealand are indeed significant.

Here's my response to Tom:

I agree with you about the damage to Fretilin - this result confirms that they have, in effect, lost the west of the country. They are no longer the party of national liberation movement, in the way that, say, the ANC still is, despite all its failings, in South Africa. They are now essentially a regional party.

I never agreed with those like John Pilger who saw last year's violence as nothing more than the result of an imperialist plot against a progressive government. There was a genuine movement based on western grievances which Horta and Canberra co-opted.

What we may well see after the June 30th elections is the emergence of three blocs in parliament - a Fretilin bloc, a Horta-Gusmao bloc based on the CNRT, and a western bloc based on the Social Democratic Association and the Democratic Party. It is notable that Fretilin has already begun to try to build bridges with some of the parties that sided with Horta in the lead-up to the run-off.

I disagree with you when you suggest that we can use electoral support for Fretilin as a sort of index to anti-occupation feeling. Fretilin did not run a consistently anti-Australian campaign - complaints about harrassment by Aussie troops were balanced by indignant protests when Horta caved in to Democratic Party pressure and abandoned the hunt for Reinado before the run-ff vote. The Democratic Party's support for Reinado, who has become - for opportunistic reasons, no doubt - a bitter opponent of the Australians also suggests that not all the anti-Fretilin votes should be taken as votes for the occupation.