- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

DILI, East Timor — Fernando de Araujo's headquarters looks more like an abandoned house than the base for a political party campaigning for office.
The cement floor is bare except for a few plastic chairs. There is no telephone, no computer and almost no money. There is only the will to make democracy work as East Timor conducts its first free elections on Thursday, after 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule and hundreds of years of Portuguese colonialism.
"We have to start it. We have to have the courage to start it," said Mr. de Araujo, whose Democratic Party is one of 16 parties most of them operating on very low budgets seeking seats in the new constituent assembly.
The 88 assembly members will write East Timor's constitution. They will likely remain in office and become East Timor's first legislature following a presidential election and full independence early next year.
The ballot comes exactly two years after East Timor voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia despite a militia campaign of murder and intimidation organized by the Indonesian military.
The outcome sparked an Indonesian-backed campaign of destruction that left more than 1,000 people dead and almost all of East Timor's vital facilities destroyed. The Indonesians finally left and were replaced by a U.N. administration in October 1999.
Since then, East Timor has been rebuilding its burned buildings and laying the foundations for democracy, a system it has never known. Initial concerns that a poll could lead to violence, that people didn't understand the election or were disinterested, have been proven false, U.N. officials say.
"I've never seen a place in the world where people would stand for five hours under the sun to check whether their name is on the voters' roll or not," said Carlos Valenzuela, chief electoral officer for the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor. He was chief of operations for East Timor's 1999 vote for independence.
Hundreds of observers from the United States and other countries will monitor the ballot by about 426,000 registered voters.
Tens of thousands more East Timorese forced across the border to Indonesian West Timor in 1999 will not be able to cast ballots. There are hopes, however, that a peaceful election could accelerate their return.
Preliminary poll results should be available by Sept. 6, but the winner is widely expected to be the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, or Fretelin.
Fretilin made a unilateral declaration of independence from Portugal on Nov. 28, 1975. A full-scale Indonesian assault crushed the young republic 10 days later, pushing its fighters to the mountains where they fought a 24-year guerrilla war.
Fretilin's secretary-general, Mari, predicts the socialist party will win 80 to 85 percent of assembly seats for a simple reason: "twenty-four years of our history here."
Fretilin's independence declaration in 1975 followed a brief civil war with the rival UDT party, which is also competing in this election.
East Timor's painful political history and the fact that some political leaders from 1975 are active in the current campaign contributed to fears of violence and efforts to avert it. All but two of the 16 parties signed a peace pact ahead of the five-week campaign.
"It's been very peaceful, and that's the important thing," said a Western diplomat who closely monitors East Timorese politics. "I think the people have learned a lot with what has happened in the last 25 years."
Although Fretilin support is undoubtedly widespread, there are reports from U.N. workers, other political parties and independent observers that the party has intimidated potential voters in rural East Timor.
"Yes, it's happening a lot. Fretilin is always saying that if they win, and you haven't supported Fretilin, you don't get work, or will be brought before the court," charged Mr. de Araujo, 38, a former student leader.
Mr. Alkatiri denied his party has threatened voters.
The United Nations is investigating reports that "some political parties" might have used undemocratic methods, said Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the U.N. administration.
"Not many have been found to be true, in the sense of open, overt harassment of the population," he said in an interview.


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