by Kennedy Graham
The people have had their say, here in East Timor. As the election observer missions are all reporting, the 2012 parliamentary election was a well-run affair. As required of stable democracies everywhere, it was organised well and run transparently, without violence or intimidation.
Yet as with all parliamentary elections everywhere, it was not without its share of political tension and intrigue. A remarkable 21 political parties competed for the support of the 650,000 voters. New Zealand had 13 registered parties last year, with 3.1 million voters.
Only four crossed the 3% threshold into the third Timorese Parliament. There are no constituencies, the 65 seats being allocated according to the popular vote (using the Hondt formula).
Personality trumps policy in Timorese politics. The front-runner is the ageless Xanana Gusmao, former freedom-fighter / prisoner turned centre-right civilian leader with charisma and charm, who seems effortlessly to outpace all potential rivals for power.
Gusmao, one of the two father-figures of the transition to independence, set up the business-oriented CNRT (National Congress for Reconstruction). At the ’07 election, Fretilin got a plurality, but blew the option of forming a government. Gusmao stitched together a coalition and became PM.
This election, his CNRT got the plurality, with 37% (rounded) of the popular vote, earning 30 of the 65 seats. The leftist Fretilin dropped to 30% (25 seats). So the question is: can CNRT form a coalition with the Democratic Party (8 seats) and / or the National Front for Reconstruction (2 seats). Or, as the speculation goes, form a national unity government ‘across the divide’ with Fretilin itself. Or, might it fall to Fretilin to reverse the tables on 2007?
East Timor is a very poor country, 147th out of 187 on the UNDP’s current Human Development Index. It is a tribute to them that a parliamentary election was run so well, given the all-pervasive poverty, along with the recent memories of occupational violence from Indonesia in the ‘90s and their own internecine civil strife barely six years back.
With poverty alleviation the national lodestar, political forces are differently arraigned here. Western-style philosophies get short shrift. The Republicans got 0.9% and the Socialists 2.4%. The Democratic Union got 1.1%, the Social Democrats 2.2%, the Christian Democrats 0.2%, the Liberal Democrats 0.5% and the Timorese Democrats 0.5%. The Popular Association for Timorese Monarchy got 0.8%.
So economic development is the name of the game and it plays out in different ways. Fretilin vets demand better treatment. So did one elderly blind woman voter on Saturday, shouting as she exited the polling booth that it was good to have the democratic right to vote, and even better if some social welfare could kick in.
But what can a tiny, impoverished country, with a violent past do? The roads into the interior are the experience of a lifetime. The electricity grid functions with less than unblemished perfection. Tropical disease is rife. Leprosy lingers.
Well, it extracts off-shore oil, that’s what. At least for as long as it lasts – maybe a few more decades. No apparent space for environmental politics, here in East Timor, among the 21 parties. Green for them is the US dollar bill that acts as the local currency. But they have built up an $11 billion fund, managed out of New York and run along lines of the Norwegian Fund whose technocrats have visited and advised. Yet the pull on liquidity draw-down is immense.
That is the existential dilemma for East Timor, as it scrapes by in 2012, struggling simultaneously to cement its democracy and lift its people out of the poverty that blights their lives.
And in that, it acts as a metaphor for the world economy, and for humanity, as we struggle to relate a decent life – prosperity – with a decent legacy – sustainability – as our numbers continue to soar.
That is what Rio ’92 was about, and Rio+20 last month, and Copenhagen ‘09 – and the 21st century, that mysteriously and fatefully beckons us all.