22 July 2012
Timor turning the corner on poll violence
"It was an unfortunate end to what had been an almost exemplary election process," said Deakin University's Damien Kingsbury, who led an Australian observers group to the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Otherwise, this year's experience has been in bright contrast to the chaos and menace permeating the 2007 elections.
The events that provoked Sunday night's clashes are likely to worsen the bad spirit between Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's CNRT and Fretilin, the main political parties.
But they have not disrupted formation of the second Gusmao government, nor preparations for the UN special mission's departure by year-end and ending the Australian-led military stabilisation mission soon after.
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East Timor's capacity to properly manage elections is vindicated and party leaders honoured their joint undertaking to restrain their hotheads during the two campaigns.
The police force, rebuilt under international guidance following the breakdown of civil authority in 2006, effectively restored order by early Monday, although Fretilin complains of unnecessary force against its supporters.
CNRT secretary general Deonisio Barbo conceded that some of his members' language on Sunday had provoked Fretilin supporters angry at their party being excluded from the new government.
Mr Deonisio "extremely regretted" harsh words spoken against Fretilin at a CNRT special conference that endorsed Mr Gusmao's recommendation for a new coalition instead with the Democratic Party (PD) and Frenti-Mudanca.
CNRT won 30 seats in the election, Fretilin 25, PD eight and Frenti-Mudanca two. In a political consolidation that favoured CNRT best, the other four parties and alliances elected to the 2007 parliament were wiped out.
Fretilin, the strongest political force in the East Timorese struggle for independence and in the first five years of the new nation, lost government when its vote halved in 2007. Its leaders, former prime minister Mari Alkatiri and Francisco Guterres "Lu Olo" had campaigned on returning Fretilin to government by negotiating the party into a coalition.
That proposal, according to Professor Kingsbury, was "ill-advised and created unrealistic expectations" among Fretilin supporters, contributing to the frustration and anger that erupted on Sunday evening.
The other inflammatory factor was that the CNRT conference was televised live, so that members intensely proud of Fretilin's role in bringing free East Timor into being, watched as it was rudely ejected from coalition considerations.
The Timor Leste Journalists Association this week joined complaints about the telecast.
"We cannot accept the live report that opened an opportunity for one party's members to say words of hatred against another party - that contributed to the conflict," said association president Tito Belo.
On the other hand, given the bad blood between the two leaderships and Fretilin's robust criticisms of CNRT and the first Gusmao government, it would have been na adive not to expect some heated reaction to its efforts to join a new coalition.
Further, while Fretilin was arguing for a coalition "government of best talents", there was an obvious concern for the risk to accountable government of the two big parties sitting together on the government benches with 55 of the parliament's 65 seats. Mr Gusmao, who played on that concern, is discussing details of a coalition agreement with the junior partners and is expected to finalise a new ministry by August 5.
He returns from the election with his authority and CNRT's control of the government significantly strengthened.
But he also confronts an array of huge difficulties, some of which have been held in abeyance until the election was safely out of the way.
The largest and most immediate of those include spreading development more evenly from Dili, the booming capital, to the outlying districts where little has happened since independence to improve education, health care, sanitation, roads and farming.
There is government and civil service corruption, which is growing faster than the new Anti-Corruption Commission's capacity to contain it.
Then there is the challenge of returning the $US12 billion ($11.5bn) Petroleum Fund, East Timor's only substantial income source, to a sustainable basis while somehow meeting the first Gusmao government's development blueprint, precariously dependent on tapping the fund.
The fund's survivability, in turn, depends on East Timor reaching agreement with Australia's Woodside Petroleum and its partners on the Greater Sunrise liquefied natural gas project.
The development is stalled by a long-running dispute between Woodside and Dili about where the gas is to be refined into LNG.
"This requires tough decisions from the government, not about what sounds good to punters ahead of an election, but what realistically the country needs to do to sustain its future in the medium- to long-term," says Professor Kingsbury.