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The next step: East Timor deserves democracy

Asian Wall Street Journal - June 22, 2000

Jim Della-Giacoma – In one of the most courageous acts of self-determination in recent history, the people of East Timor went to the polls last August to reject an Indonesian offer of greater autonomy in favor of a transition to independence under the stewardship of the United Nations.

The independence struggle was waged for almost 25 years by a small guerrilla army, but the final battle was won at the ballot box. Defying months of violence organized by the Indonesian military, almost 450,000 registered and voted in record numbers at that August referendum.

The fact that 98.5% of East Timorese voters turned out polling day clearly shows voters appreciate electoral power more than most people in Western democracies. Yet the UN is denying them an opportunity to extend that power into where it matters most: the development of a functioning democracy.

After seven months of governance under the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, no concrete steps have been taken by the UN to elect local officials to take part in the decision making processes of this billion dollar operation. If the UN is to fulfill its mandate to "support capacity building in self-government" and "assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable development" it must not hesitate in supporting democratic methods of choosing East Timorese to lead this fledgling nation.

As donors gather in Lisbon this week to consider further aid for East Timor, they should also give a thought to the nonmaterial needs of East Timor. Untaet has done much to restart government since arriving, but already there are foreboding signs of a growing frustration among East Timorese who feel excluded from the UN operation.

To be sure, Untaet has appointed many East Timorese to a number of advisory bodies, including district advisory councils, and reportedly will soon appoint East Timorese "ministers." But by doing so, the UN has shown a bias toward old Lusafone elites and alienated East Timor's youthful majority. By their very nature, appointed bodies are antidemocratic. The only way to bring the entire community legitimately into the decision making process – and thus to build a broad-based democracy – is to hold elections.

What are the arguments against elections? Some say it would unnecessarily complicate the political landscape of East Timor, fragment the coalition of parties that is the National Council for Timorese Resistance and politicize the community. It would undoubtedly make the situation more complex for Untaet's overworked staff and bring new and competing voices to the fore.

But there is a patronizing tone to such arguments that the East Timorese are not ready for democracy. The turnout for the August referendum, often under the threat of death, undermines that argument.

Some worry about the expense, but the cost would be a fraction of what is spent feeding and fueling the more than 8,000 peacekeeping troops in East Timor. Elections would silence many critics of Untaet's unrepresentative nature, a flaw that some ungenerous souls say verges on neocolonialism.

Like it not, the community in East Timor is being politicized with little guidance or political laws as small parties set up branches and larger ones reorganize in the districts. At the same time, without fanfare and no violence the World Bank-funded Community Empowerment Project has run 123 village level elections in recent weeks for committees to decide on the distribution of between $15,000 and $45,000 for each village.

Even if there are problems, democracy is learned by practice, not from textbooks. Why not start by electing district councils starting with the capital Dili? This would be an achievable short-term goal. In turn, this would prepare the electorate for the trickier task of choosing a constituent assembly to write a constitution and elect a government before the transition to independence. It would also produce a cadre of experienced elected officials at the time of the transfer of power.

Of course, Untaet will need to stick around for some time – probably another two or three years until the constitution is finished and national government elected. But over that period, East Timorese can work on the good habits of democracy as an insurance against autocracy, one-party rule and the ravages of corruption.

Democracy is slow and can be painful. But if it's good enough for the UN and the key donor countries, then the East Timorese deserve a chance to experience the good and the bad of representative government of their own. That is ultimately what so many of them lived and died for last year.