Former resistance fighters vie for presidency in East Timor

20 Mar, 2017 2:16 pm

DILI – People began voting in East Timor on Monday in a presidential election, with the two main parties backing former independence fighters for the largely ceremonial post as Asia’s youngest democracy struggles to combat poverty and chronic unemployment.

Lines formed outside polling booths, as voters queued to choose from a field of eight candidates contesting the fourth presidential poll since East Timor won independence from Indonesia in 2002.

The central concern among the country’s 1.2 million people has been a failure to spread wealth from oil and gas revenues, with unemployment running at around 60 percent.

Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, backed by the party that led the independence struggle, Fretilin, is regarded by many as the frontrunner. He has been endorsed by resistance hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party.

“I want to change the condition of the people in all aspects like in healthcare, education, and a sustainable economic life,” Guterres said after casting his vote in the capital Dili.

Analysts said the challenge for any incoming government would be to wean the predominantly Roman Catholic nation away from reliance on oil money and diversify its sources of income into agriculture and manufacturing.

The energy sector accounted for around 60 percent of GDP in 2014 and more than 90 percent of government revenue.

The former Portuguese colony was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975. A 24-year, often violent, resistance movement achieved East Timor’s independence in 2002 and many of its key figures still feature prominently in the running of the country.

Monday’s election is the first since UN peacekeepers left the half-island nation in 2012.

Another leading candidate is Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao. The education minister has secured backing from his own party as well as the newly formed People’s Liberation Party (PLP) of the incumbent president Jose Maria de Vasconcelos.

Emerging from one of one of the polling booths, Rita Sera do Carmo, a young woman in her twenties, said she chose da Conceicao. “He has good plans that I believe can take this country to a better future,” she said.

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, it is also seen as important for promoting unity in the young nation.

Vasconcelos, also know by his former guerrilla nickname “Taur Matan Ruak” (two sharp eyes), is expected to run for the more powerful post of prime minister in July’s parliamentary poll. If nobody gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held next month between the two leading candidates.