Saturday, May 12, 2007

Horta's victory: behind the hype

John Howard, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and newspapers across Australasia have hailed the big win of Jose Ramos Horta in the second round of East Timor's Presidential elections as a victory for the peace and unity of the fledgling nation. Speaking to Australian reporters, Howard called Horta, who won 69% of the vote in a run-off with Fretilin's Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres, a 'good friend' and 'the hope of our side'. The New Zealand Herald suggested that the size of Horta's win 'increased hopes for unity' in a 'poor nation still struggling to heal divisions'.

The real meaning of Horta's victory is considerably more complex. After being humiliated in the first round of the election, he has been able to prevail against Guterres only by exacerbating East Timor's regional differences and relying on the Australian troops which dominate the 'International Stabilisation Force' occupying East Timor.

To the shock of his boosters in Canberra and Wellington, Horta won a mere 22% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential election held on April the 9th. Horta prevailed in Dili, where he and his close ally Xanana Gusmao have the support of the country's business elite, a part of the civil service, and many young people. In the eastern districts of the country, though, Horta was no match for Guterres, and in the west he generally trailed behind the candidates of the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Association (ADST). With 19% of the national vote, the Democratic Party’s Francisco de Araujo almost won the right to challenge Guterres in the second round.

Horta took the Presidency not because of his promises of tax cuts and praise for John Howard, but because he won the endorsement of de Araujo and ADST leader Francisco Amaral in the lead-up to the second round of voting. Both de Araujo and Amaral have their bases in the heavily-populated western region of East Timor, and the real story of these elections has been the emergence of the west as an independent political force.

To understand the present situation in East Timor we need to remember that the western part of the country has been marginalised in the years since the end of Indonesian occupation in 1999. Easterners have always occupied most of the leadership positions in Fretilin, and they inevitably dominated the first government of East Timor. When the Falintil guerrilla forces which had fought the Indonesians were cantoned, demobilised, and converted into a smaller national army in 1999 and early 2000, it was fighters from the east who were preferred by the leadership of Fretilin.

Westerners who did make it into the army often faced discrimination and harsh conditions. Early last year a group of them mutinied and staged a series of marches which were attacked by police loyal to Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The rebels, who became known as 'the Petitioners', soon attracted the backing of many westerners, as well as a faction of opponents of Alkatiri's government led by Horta and East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao.

Close friends of the Howard and Bush administrations, Horta and Gusmao were opposed to the relatively independent foreign policy that Alkatiri had tried to follow since becoming Prime Minister in 2002. Working closely with the Australian government, which particularly disliked Alkatiri's ties to Portugal, China and Cuba and his hardball negotiating over the oil and gas reserves in the disputed Tmor Gap, Horta and Gusmao turned the Petitioners' movement into a general uprising against the Alkatiri government.

By the middle of 2006, East Timor's major towns were racked by violence, and the police and army had split down the middle along regional lines. Complaining of a 'coup' against his government, Alkatiri reluctantly agreed to the deployment of an Australian-dominated 'stabilisation' force to East Timor. Using the troops as leverage, the Howard government and Alkatiri's enemies soon forced Alkatiri's replacement by Horta.

The deployment of troops was supported by both the majority in Fretilin and the westerners who had been fighting Alkatiri. Fretilin leaders hoped the force would put down the western rebellion; westerners hoped it would marginalise Alkatiri and Fretilin. For its part, the Howard government was determined to make sure that the new government in Dili was be less troublesome than Alkatiri's regime.

By the beginning of this year it was clear that the new status quo in East Timor was unravelling. Horta and Gusmao were bitterly resented by a cabinet and parliament still dominated by Fretilin and loyal to Alkatiri. Violent clashes between gangs continued in many places, and more than thirty thousand refugees were refusing to leave camps they had established in and around Dili. Drought and government ineptitude led to a serious shortage of rice and food riots in the towns. Australian security forces acted autocratically and sometimes brutally, alienating locals. The alliance between anti-Fretilin westerners, Horta, and the Australians fell apart, as Alfredo Reinado, the leader of the Petitioners, was arrested and imprisoned.

In January and February, the occupying forces struggled to hold the line for Horta's embattled government. Australian and New Zealand troops helped to disperse crowds of food rioters and guard rice supplies in Dili and Bacau, and in doing so earned the enmity of the hungriest parts of the population. On February the 23rd, Australian troops attacked the Comoro refugee camp outside Dili. The residents of the camp had become a thorn in Horta's side by refusing to disperse and staging regular anti-government protests. The Australians used two tanks to smash through the barricades at Comoro, and their infantry shot three youths, two of whom died of their wounds. As word of the deaths spread, protesters filled the streets of Dili, chanting 'Australians go home' and stoning the occupiers' vehicles. The residents of Comoro drafted a statement calling for Australian withdrawal from East Timor.

The crisis with the western rebels came to a head on March the 4th, when Australian SAS troops killed five Timorese in a bungled raid on a suspected hiding place of Reinado, who had escaped from prison and led a group of armed followers into the hills south of Dili. New protests erupted on the streets of Dili, as youths loyal to Reinado built barricades of burning tyres and attacked restaurants where foreigners dined.

The first round of the Presidential elections confirmed the failure of Horta and Gusmao to win a majority of East Timorese to their side. Horta and his Australian backers had alienated the west, as well as the Fretilin-dominated east. Horta's campaign promises to turn East Timor into 'a new Hong Kong', his enthusiasm for tax cuts, and his support for Bush and Howard's foreign policies, including the war in Iraq, did little to boost his support.

In the month between the first and second round of voting, Horta followed a twin-track strategy in a desperate effort to prevail over Guterres. He tried to capture the western vote by securing the support of its two main recipients, the Social Democratic Association and the Democratic Party. Leading members of both parties were promised key roles in a Horta-led government, and military operations against Reinado and his rebels were unceremoniously abandoned, at the request of the Democratic Party.

Horta and his friends in Canberra tried to neutralise the threat of Fretilin by stepping up the intimidation of the party's campaigners by the Australian forces that were supposed to be providing 'security' for the election. Even before the first round of voting, Fretilin had complained of blatant Australin interference in its campaign. On March the 26th, for instance, Australian troops stopped a convoy of vehicles containing Alkatiri and Guterres at gunpoint, and threatened the life of an aide to Alkatiri.

In the lead-up to the second round of voting, Australian intimidation became even more blatant. Australian helicopters flew over Fretilin's last two election rallies, and heavily armed soldiers ranged amongst the crowds, terrifying Guterres' supporters. In a statement issued a few days before the poll, Fretilin complained that it was receiving daily reports of Australian interference in its campaign from grassroots activists.

It was Horta's cynical strategy, and not any sudden Timorese fondness for John Howard and flat taxes, which succeeded in reversing his fortunes and winning him a big majority of the vote in the second round of elections for President. Because of the way it was achieved, Horta's victory will not bring peace and unity to East Timor. On the contrary, it promises to exacerbate the country's regional and political differences. Horta has promised leaders from the west of the country a share of power, but East Timor’s constitution makes the post of President a largely symbolic one. To consolidate this victory and achieve real power, the faction around Horta and Gusmao needs to win a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June the 30th and create a new Prime Minister and Cabinet line-up of their choice. Their fledgling National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party is still a small splinter from the Fretilin organisation, and is unlikely to win anything like a majority at the end of June. If Fretilin wins a majority or even a plurality of seats, then a constitutional crisis could quickly develop, as Horta faces off against a hostile Prime Minister. If parliament is divided between Fretilin, on the one hand, and the CNRT and its western allies, on the other hand, then East Timor's regional tensions could be exacerbated rather than healed.

The use of Australian troops against Fretilin during the Presidential election campaign has compounded the work done by the attack on Comoro refugee camp and the bungled raid on Reinado, and turned large numbers of East Timorese against the occupation. Resistance to the foreign forces can be expected to grow, along with conflict between east and west. The celebrations of Horta's supporters in Canberra and in the media are premature.


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