Sixteen years on from independence, Timorese go to polls after bitter campaign

Candidate Fidelis Magalhães represents next generation in country still dominated by revolutionary leaders

A supporter of the Fretilin  party shouts during a rally in Dili, Timor-Leste, ahead of parliamentary elections on Saturday. Photograph: Lirio Da Fonseca/Reuters

A supporter of the Fretilin party shouts during a rally in Dili, Timor-Leste, ahead of parliamentary elections on Saturday. Photograph: Lirio Da Fonseca/Reuters

 

In April 1999, when Indonesian troops burned down his family’s house and arrested his father in the rural town of Maliana in East Timor, Fidelis Magalhães, then 16, took refuge in the mountainous jungle in the surrounding Bobonaro district.

The former Portuguese colony was in ruins after 24 years of guerrilla warfare against occupation by a brutal Indonesian regime in which up to 200,000 people, almost a quarter of the population, died from violence and famine.

For six months Magalhães, second-eldest of nine children, and a friend, Gilberto, lived on dried cassavas, roots, and the charity of equally impoverished and starving villagers. The pair were already established in the Sagrada Familianationalist youth movement, spurred on throughout their adolescence by reports of the bravery and military prowess of resistance heroes Xanana Gusmão, Taur Matan Ruak, Lú-Olo and, in exile in New York where he campaigned relentlessly at the UN for international support for East Timor, José Ramos-Horta.

“People from my generation, we all were hard-core lovers of Xanana. Xanana was the man. It would remind you of the day when you first fall in love, or where your mother got mad at you, or your father kicked you out of the house. He was a reference point. His presence was overarching. He was a mythical figure,” he says.

“We had so many pictures of Xanana, of Marí Alkatiri [who spent the war years in exile in Mozambique and Angola], of [Fernando de] Araújo [also exiled, in Indonesia]. And all those news clippings coming from Portugal, smuggled in, about Ramos-Horta.”

Xanana Gusmão of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction campaigning in Dili ahead of Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste. Photograph: Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images
Xanana Gusmão of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction campaigning in Dili ahead of Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste. Photograph: Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images

During those months in the jungle, Magalhães scarcely imagined he would one day work closely with several of his heroes, including as chief adviser to two of them, Ramos-Horta and Ruak, when each served as president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, as it became known in 2002 following a UN-supervised referendum on independence in 1999.

Early elections

On Saturday, 19 years later, he is running for parliament for the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), established last year and led by Ruak who, along with most war-time luminaries, continues to dominate Timorese politics. Magalhães, now 36 and a graduate of Harvard and the LSE, is widely regarded as a top young politician likely to finally bridge the generational gap and play a significant role in Timor-Leste’s future.

These are early elections, prompted by a protracted political impasse that has paralysed state institutions and plunged the country into uncertainty. The vote represents a test of this fragile democracy of some 1.2 million people, more than 60 per cent of whom are under 25, with nearly half living in poverty.

Four parties and four coalitions are competing – one comprising Gusmão’s CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction), Ruak’s PLP, and the youth-focused KHUNTO party.

Polls last July resulted in a slim victory for the Fretilin party, the former guerrilla movement. With 23 out of 65 seats, Fretilin scored just one seat more than main rival CNRT. Under Marí Alkatiri as prime minister, it formed a minority government with the Democratic Party but failed to garner essential opposition support to pass its programme for government. In January, following months of acrimonious deadlock, President Francisco Guterres dissolved parliament and announced new polls.

Fidelis Magalhães of Timor-Leste’s PLP party beside portraits of José Ramos-Horta (left) and Xanana Gusmão at the Hotel Timor in Dili. Photograph: Mary Boland
Fidelis Magalhães of Timor-Leste’s PLP party beside portraits of José Ramos-Horta (left) and Xanana Gusmão at the Hotel Timor in Dili. Photograph: Mary Boland

It has been a bitter campaign, with accusations traded over how, in a country that struck oil and has been living off the dividends, basic services such as roads, education and healthcare could be so desperately lacking.

Independent Timor’s first leaders have brought the country some distance since the scorched-earth policy of the departing Indonesian troops left a landscape of rubble and ruin. But 16 years after independence, poor sanitation, malnutrition and stunting are endemic. The country has no industry to speak of, and a tiny private sector. Apart from oil, coffee is the only significant export – and about a third of the coffee trees are unproductive due to neglect and lack of investment. Yet the country has collected more than US$18 billion from the Bayu-Undan oil and gas field.

Oil money

Successive governments have relied on the now-dwindling oil fund to finance annual budgets. Money has been ploughed into grand development schemes that analysts warn benefit only the few. There are some half a dozen airports and more are planned, but swathes of the country have no access to clean water.

“With the strong commitment from big parties and coalitions to continuing major projects ... the question remains will there be enough resources allocated to building basic services for the people, improving health, education, water and sanitation and improving other sectors such as agriculture, independent industries, tourism, which would have a more immediate impact on people’s economic independence,” says researcher Pelagio Doutel of local NGO La’o Hamutuk, which has advised successive governments to rethink their strategies, to little avail.

The oil money will soon run out, warns La’o Hamutuk. Hopes are being pinned on the untapped Greater Sunrise basin, with its estimated US$50 billion in gas reserves. Australia and Timor-Leste reached a landmark accord on a maritime border earlier this year, but still have to work out how they will develop Sunrise.

The PLP was previously highly critical of the two big parties, Fretilin and CNRT, saying they both failed the country’s poor when in power. Now it has joined forces with Gusmão’s CNRT. Magalhães concedes that some horse-trading was necessary. “It was a big compromise for us, yes – but CNRT has also made compromises. We have had to try to understand each other’s programme better.”

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