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Monday, 27 August, 2001, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
East Timor's first election
Supporters of the Socialist Democratic Party
Election monitors are making sure the vote is fair
By Asia-Pacific analyst Tim Luard

The people of East Timor are preparing to go to the polls on Thursday in the territory's first democratic vote since breaking away from Indonesia two years ago.

After centuries of authoritarian Portuguese rule and 24 years of often-brutal Indonesian occupation, the election is designed to lead the 800,000 people of East Timor to democratic self-government.

Voters will choose 88 candidates to form a constituent assembly. The body will write a constitution for the fledgling nation, now under United Nations stewardship, and will become the first parliament.

Full independence is expected next year.

But history has taught the East Timorese to associate political activity with violence. The election is being held on the second anniversary of the referendum at which East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

People's fears

Pro-Jakarta militia groups, backed by Indonesian armed forces, responded to that vote by killing hundreds of people, forcibly deporting thousands more to Indonesian West Timor, and destroying most of East Timor's infrastructure and buildings.

Former separatist guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao
Xanana Gusmao: Running for presidency next year
So it is understandable that people are approaching this latest vote with as much trepidation as excitement.

In fact, in the run-up to the vote, little major violence has arisen. The 16 parties vying for seats have on the whole adopted a low-key approach, avoiding contentious issues and confrontational rhetoric.

But five local election observer groups have issued a statement citing cases of minor violence, forced attendance at campaign rallies and intimidation. They say heavy-handed tactics and stone-throwing have been reported during campaigning in several districts.

The UN is particularly anxious to ensure militia groups do not come over from West Timor to intimidate voters

Unknown groups suspected of belonging to the biggest of the parties, Fretilin, are said to have attacked supporters of two of the smaller parties - the Democratic Party and the Christian Democrat Party - when they tried to hold rallies.

Fretilin has also been accused of intimidating voters by telling them it intends to "sweep clean" after the election.

The party says it is just referring to cleaning the streets. But "sweep clean" was a term used by the Indonesian military during its rule, meaning to kill or get rid of political opponents. And, particularly in sensitive border areas, people believe they are being threatened, should they not vote for Fretilin.

Future leader?

Fretilin, having for decades led the guerrilla campaign against the Indonesian occupation, is expected to be a comfortable winner in the election. It says it has given up its more radical policies, but there are some who believe it remains Marxist and authoritarian at heart.

Indonesia militia killed many during the independence vote
The former separatist guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao is not standing in this election, but is strongly tipped to be East Timor's first president. On Saturday he ended months of speculation and announced he would stand for the post in the election expected early next year.

Mr Gusmao has responded to the fears of political unrest during the election by stepping up his calls for national unity and by urging all parties to abide by the results. Earlier this month he met pro-Indonesian militia leaders based in West Timor and urged them to return to the eastern half of the island and take part in the election.

The UN is particularly anxious to ensure militia groups do not come over from West Timor to intimidate voters. It has taken extraordinary security precautions, increasing its military patrols and setting up checkpoints on major roads.

The election is being monitored by hundreds of observers from more than 40 countries. One of their concerns is that East Timor's democratic development may be hindered by the powers being offered to the new constituent assembly.

Its members could in theory draft a constitution that will ensure they stay in parliament for a very long time.

But UN officials say they are increasingly confident that all will go well in this election. They hope the people of East Timor will at least learn that elections do not necessarily bring violence and destruction in their wake.

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: East Timor
25 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Gusmao runs for Timor presidency
08 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Gusmao meets E Timor militias
30 Aug 00 | East Timor
Analysis: Gusmao's key role
29 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Gusmao quits presidential race
30 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
East Timor marks year of freedom
30 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: East Timor's 25 turbulent years
31 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Timor's legacy of trauma
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