'There are more parallels to the Indonesian situation here than you would think'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am

With only a few days left before East Timor goes to the polls, a long line of trucks and motorcycles rolled along Dili's palm-fringed waterfont yesterday in an attempt to rally support for the Partido Democratico (PD).

The convoy made its way to Dili's stadium, a dry open field, which has been hosting the last of the political rallies ahead of Thursday's election for a constituent assembly that will draft East Timor's first national constitution.

A day earlier, tribal dancers in feathered head-dresses performed at the stadium in an attempt to whip up enthusiasm for the Partido Socialista de Timor (PST).

The events are all part of East Timor's first attempt at a free election, and so far, say UN officials, the campaign is going well. Election-related violence has not occurred.

Alleged threats of reprisals for voting against front-runner Fretilin continue to be an issue, but Fretilin leaders say their words have been misinterpreted.

Despite expectations of a landslide win for Fretilin, the results of this historical vote might be more balanced than some expect, said a leader of the Partido Social Democratica (PSD), Agio Pereira. 'The real campaign is not what you see,' he said. 'Our society is very structured, since the Indonesian occupation [1975-1999] we are not used to identifying ourselves with political parties. This is a new phenomenon for us. It is part of the process of liberation.

'Since 1974 . . . being part of a political group has always had dire consequences. So we are more reserved. There are core groups, which are active, but the vast population is watching from the sidelines,' he said.

Before the August 1999 independence ballot, anyone seen as opposing the occupation was labelled 'Fretilin' by the Indonesian authorities. Now there are 16 political parties.

An international observer described East Timor's mainly uneducated population as having 'colonised minds'.

'These people are coming out of a period when any political activity was frowned upon, when initiative was punished, when the free flow of ideas was destroyed,' he said.

Some election organisers fear that up to a quarter of votes could be wrongly marked, simply because the two ballot papers - one for 75 political party seats and the other for 13 district seats - carry many coloured party flags. 'The risk of people puncturing a different hole to what they intend is high,' one poll organiser said.

Ask anyone from the barefoot youth selling vegetables in Dili to the taxi driver from Viqueque who they will vote for and most say 'Fretilin'.

'There are more parallels to the past Indonesian situation here than you would think,' said a UN political expert.

'Politics is still seen as dirty and divisive. You could say that Fretilin is like Golkar [for decades the political vehicle of former Indonesian president Suharto]. It has the [same] grassroots organisation and all-embracing hold on the public's mind. Many people want one clear winner for safety's sake. They want to know who will win so they can back it and be safe,' the expert said.

After Fretilin, the PD, PST, PSD and the Timorese Democratic Union are the leading parties. Fretilin is known as having been the vehicle of resistance against Jakarta throughout Indonesian occupation, but the other parties claim they have more comprehensive programmes and tout leaders who did not flee into exile as some Fretilin campaigners did.

The PSD's Mr Pereira said many influential figures had not yet revealed an allegiance to any party, and as long as the UN poll organisers held a secret ballot the result was wide open.