East Timor takes final vote for nationhood

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2001, 12:00am

Choosing a body to design a constitution might not sound exciting, but when East Timor goes to the polls this week voters will be opening a new chapter in their march to nationhood.

Thursday's vote has been billed as the territory's first free and fair election after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and a quarter of a century of Indonesian occupation. It will be conducted by United Nations election specialists and monitored by international and independent observers. Fourteen of the 16 political parties involved have signed a Pact of National Unity forswearing violence or intimidation. Campaigning, which began on July 15, will end on Tuesday after major party rallies in the capital, Dili.

Behind the election hoopla, more bureaucratic but vital steps have been under way to help prepare East Timor for nationhood. The Constituent Assembly to be chosen this week will have 88 members, 75 selected on a proportional basis, with the rest representing the 13 districts of East Timor. They will receive the results of a series of public consultations across the territory by local constitutional commissioners. These should inform the new body's members as to whether they are to design a parliamentary or presidential system of government. Other key decisions are whether fresh presidential elections will need to be held, and exactly when independence should be declared.

The United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor has held its own consultations about how it should be adjusting to a post-election situation. The administration's head, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has already promised to appoint a transitional cabinet that will no longer include UN personnel but be formed entirely of East Timorese leaders. The administration plans to stay in East Timor for another year or two but says it will step up its localisation procedures to try to get more East Timorese into positions of power.

Extensive awareness-raising workshops have been held in the four months since a survey found most East Timorese had no idea what the election was for. A key question yet to be answered is how politically open the East Timorese will prove to be in either victory or defeat. Some UN sources fear violence when the results are known.

The parties contesting the vote cover a wide spectrum, from pro-Jakarta figures who favour a return to integration with Indonesia to a radical left-wing party that embodies the former occupying power's greatest fears.

In between lies Fretilin, the party most representative of East Timor's liberation struggle and the one with the most extensive grassroots organisation, which is predicting a landslide.

Yesterday, the man everyone expects to be the country's first leader, Xanana Gusmao, confirmed he would contest a presidential election and called on all parties contesting the vote to accept the outcome.

There are several issues the election will not be tackling. The most divisive is justice and reconciliation. This is a war-torn territory laid waste by Jakarta-backed militias two years ago when East Timor chose independence over continued Indonesian rule. Many friends and neighbours became enemies, killing each other, wrecking properties and fleeing to Indonesian West Timor to escape retribution.

Should they be welcomed home or brought to justice - or both? Tens of thousands of East Timorese remain in camps in West Timor, unable to participate in this vote. An Indonesian army-organised registration of their wishes earlier this year found most wanted to stay in Indonesia. But many in East Timor and several independent observers decried the registration as a farce.

Key leaders such as Mr Gusmao and Bishop Carlos Belo speak more of reconciliation than retribution. They are supported by a UN administration that has spent more energy arranging reconciliation meetings between former warring parties than it has on supporting its own Serious Crimes Unit.

The planners say education in democracy can be a messy process, running the risk of failed expectations and violent reactions. But they note that, so far, there has been no direct election-related violence. They warn against perceiving 'normal' violence - such as that over commercial competition and turf wars between gangs - as meaning anything more than that.

To their minds, the best outcome this week would be an uneventful vote, a stable outcome - meaning a clear win by one party - and an uninterrupted forward motion towards full, peaceful nationhood. Once again, two years after the last vote, the East Timorese have a chance to prove they are ready for it.