East Timor president faces first challenge: parliament

A new battle with exiled leaders now looms for President Gusmao.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao is a figure of such legendary stature here that no viable challenger ran against him for the presidency of the world's newest nation.

Mr. Gusmao, who prefers his nom de guerre, Xanana, took 83 percent of the vote Wednesday. His opponent, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, ran to save East Timor the embarrassment of an unopposed election.

But the struggle for the dashing former guerrilla leader, who spent 15 years in the jungle fighting the Indonesian occupation of the former Portuguese colony, and another seven in a Jakarta prison, has only just begun.

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He will lead a tiny, politically immature Pacific island nation that is subject to droughts and only has one native doctor among its 700,000 citizens. It is an overwhelmingly rural country with extremely limited access to media. Most of its basic infrastructure was destroyed by Indonesian soldiers and militia proxies when they pulled out in 1999, after a UN-sponsored referendum on separation.

The government budget of $60 million was entirely paid for by the United Nations and other donors this year. The only real export, coffee, is facing a global slump. As a result, when the UN mission that has governed the country since its 1999 independence referendum hands over full power on May 20, East Timor will remain reliant on international aid.

"I know the expectations are high and the challenges are great,'' Xanana says. "The people have put their trust in me, because they think I can do something for them. But we must be patient. If after 15 years of independence their living standards have risen, then we can say we've achieved something."

Despite his landslide victory, his presidency will be scrutinized. And the party watching most closely is the one he became synonymous with during the 24-year war of independence – Fretilin.

While Xanana was transforming himself from a seminary student and would-be poet into a guerrilla leader of tactical brilliance, a core group of exiles from the party were living abroad and planning their return.

The Fretilin returnees are led by Mari Alkatiri, who taught law while exiled in Mozambique. He will be the equivalent of prime minister in the new government. Over the years, the exiles drifted politically apart from Xanana. But on returning home, they won a two-thirds majority in the country's new parliament, partly by trading on Xanana's name.

"This is the political fault line that's going to color East Timor's development," says a Western diplomat in Dili, the capital.

Friends say Xanana, who ran for president as an independent, is worried that Fretilin is so determined to claim the spoils of independence for itself that it is loosing sight of the risks to this tiny Pacific island nation.

Xanana wants to create a government of "national unity" that shares power with small parties and lessens the possibilities for resentment to simmer.

"This civil society is still as an embryo, that is why we have to work out some ways to help it develop,'' Xanana says.

Mr. Alkatiri and his supporters, meanwhile, think the key to the future is firm, nearly one-party rule. They want a tight grip on parliament and the cabinet and a minimum of debate, which they worry could paralyze the government.

"We want a government that's competent and can run the country, we don't want a government made incompetent by including the leaders of this or that small political party,'' says Fretilin's Estanislaw de Silva, who will be the agriculture minister.

THE Constitution, written by a parliament packed with Fretilin loyalists, leaves the balance of power firmly in their favor and the president with a largely ceremonial role.

"Xanana may want a government of national unity, but he was told to go and look at the Constitution," Alkatiri told reporters.

Yet Xanana is so popular that many analysts say that his vision for East Timor may yet prevail. As the man who led a heroic, seemingly doomed resistance against the world's fourth-largest nation, he has a credibility that the Fretilin leaders can't touch.

"Xanana will make some concessions, but Mari Alkatiri will not be flexible enough, because he is looking like an authoritarian,'' says Mario Carrascalao, the leader of the small Social Democrat Party. "Xanana knows the real problems of the people. Alkatiri came back after 24 years away: He knows Mozambique," says Mr. Carrascalao.

Where Xanana is warm and casual, Mr. Alkatiri is reserved and formal. Where Xanana glows in the public spotlight, Mr. Alkatiri is strongest as a backroom politician.

Xanana arrived with his 18-month old son in his arms at a beachside bar to deliver his victory speech. He had to pause to shush the child as it fidgeted about. He then sent him outside to eat a banana while he finished. Mr. Alkatiri spoke from the press room at the UN's headquarters.

East Timor's development now hinges on this clash of personalities – Xanana, who appears to have the people on his side, and Alkatiri, who has the letter of the law on his.

"To the East Timorese, [Xanana] is independence,'' says the diplomat. "His powers may be constitutionally limited, but I wouldn't like to be the politician who becomes publicly identified as opposing him."

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