Four weeks ago, the citizens of Timor-Leste, known in many parts of the world as East Timor, went to the polls to elect a president. We were 12 men and women competing for the largely ceremonial but potentially influential office. On Monday, the voters returned to choose between the two top vote-getters.
After the first round, political commentators did a simplistic analysis of the elections and how I “lost.” They missed the point.
A little over a decade ago, our small island was still occupied by the Indonesian military. Hundreds of thousands of our citizens perished under the occupation, either by execution, lack of the most basic medical care or starvation by forced relocations. With a small rag-tag group of dedicated independence fighters, we faced a massive army equipped and trained by the United States. We were a forgotten people.
When we achieved independence in 1999 through a U.N.-sponsored referendum, our island was devastated by militia backed by the Indonesian military. Eighty-five percent of our buildings were burned to the ground, and more than 300,000 people were forcibly removed to Indonesia.
In 2006 and 2007, Timor-Leste again exploded into violence, this time in civil conflict. It was the type of upheaval that is not unusual, historically, for a new democracy, but one that caused many to fear that the country was racing toward the edge of a cliff.
I am proud and honored to have served Timor-Leste, first in exile during the occupation and then as foreign minister, prime minister and president of the world’s youngest democracy. I am proud that during my presidency we achieved, for the first time in more than 35 years, a stable peace, which has allowed for new levels of development.
But having served as prime minister and president, I hesitated to run again for the presidency this year. At the signed request of more than 100,000 Timorese citizens, I did enter the race. I stated, however, that I would not campaign, as I had too much respect for at least two of the 11 other candidates.
In the few occasions when I did make public statements I reassured the voters about the other two leading candidates, who are indeed national heroes. One, Taur Matan Ruak, was a commander of Timor-Leste’s resistance forces during the 24-year occupation and after independence commanded our defense forces. The other, Francisco Guterres, popularly known as Lú-Olo, was also a leader of the resistance and has served as president of Parliament and president of the largest and oldest political party.
I cannot compare myself with them. While we fought the same battle to free our country from occupation during a dark 24 years, we fought in different trenches. I was in the diplomatic trench, one more visible internationally. But this is not to be equated with the daily challenges and dangers of the armed resistance or political underground network, whose losses were in thousands of lives. They have earned the right to lead as much as I.
During the last weeks of the first round of the campaign, I watched a vibrant democracy at work. The capital city, Dili, plastered with posters of smiling candidates, was loud with parades and rallies.
Naturally there were tensions, and fears spread among people traumatized by past violence. But the violence did not happen.
Last week I invited the two candidates for a heart-to-heart talk and pleaded with them to tone down their language, soften their campaign rhetoric, show tolerance and moderation. They agreed. They even appeared together before the media. Tensions were lowered. The political atmosphere has been much calmer since.
Which of our two candidates will win on Monday is the lesser question. The real question is whether Timor-Leste will be able to emerge fully from a past filled with violence and oppression, and whether it will be able to enjoy a peaceful transition of power. In other words, have we learned to take our battles to the polls instead of the streets?
So far the answer is yes. We are halfway through — after the runoff presidential vote, we have parliamentary elections in July. But it appears that our democracy is emerging from the process stronger — still imperfect, but on its feet and functioning.
Timor-Leste is a different country today than it was 10 years ago or even five years ago. Its double-digit growth for four straight years has made it one of the strongest economies in Asia. Unemployment has plummeted, and we are on track for 100-percent adult literacy by 2015. By the end of 2012 the entire country will have 24-hour electrical power for the first time, and in few years we should have 21st century connectivity.
There are still many challenges ahead. Timor-Leste has not yet conquered problems of corruption and waste. The number of people living in extreme poverty is down, but not far enough.
But back in 1999, Dili was devastated. Today it is rebuilt and buzzing with a new generation of young people on cars and motorbikes, all going to work.
I view the fact that our elections are competitive with a sense of contentment. They are a sign that the country is maturing. New candidates are enjoying a well-earned moment in the sun, and a younger generation is coming up behind them. Before long, new, young leaders will emerge, eager and ready to take the reins of the country from the hands of this year’s victors. This is the surest sign that our country has closed a very difficult chapter in its history, and that a new chapter has begun.
The violence of the past has been replaced by motorcycle parades and political rallies. None of us who fought for the freedom to hold these elections, who saw so many of our brothers and sisters give their lives for this day, can feel a loss at watching it occur.
It is my hope that we have sent a message to others emerging from conflict that it can be done.
José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the president of East Timor.