Asia’s youngest democracy, East Timor, goes to the polls

Poll workers transport ballot boxes to the polling station for East Timor's presidential election in Dili
Election officials transport ballot boxes to the polling station for East Timor’s presidential elections in Dili, East Timor, March 18, 2022. REUTERS/Lirio da Fonseca

March 18, 2022

DILI (Reuters) – Voters in East Timor head to the polls on Saturday as Asia’s youngest democracy holds its fifth presidential election since independence, with concerns over political stability and economic security at the forefront of the campaign.

The 16 presidential contenders include former resistance fighter and incumbent President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, independence figure and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, and a former Catholic priest.

While the so-called “guerrilla generation” of the country’s pro-independence figures still dominate the field, there are also four female candidates for the first time, including Deputy Prime Minister Armanda Berta Dos Santos.

A recent poll by the national university found that Ramos-Horta, 72, former Defense Forces Commander Lere Anan Timur, and Guterres are the favourites, with Ramos-Horta leading at 39%.

If no candidate achieves an absolute majority, the vote on April 19 turns into a runoff between the two top candidates.

Twenty years after gaining independence after a brutal Indonesian occupation ended, East Timor has long struggled with political instability.

After the last elections in 2018, Guterres refused to swear in some ministers of the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT), a political party led by former prime minister and resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.

The move triggered a chain of ongoing political rifts.

In a streamed address Thursday, Ramos-Horta, who is supported by Xanana’s CNRT party, said he was running because he felt the current president had “exceeded his authority.”

In East Timor’s political system, the President also shares some executive powers and appoints a government and has the power to veto ministers or dissolve parliament.

During a recent electoral debate, Guterres pledged to ensure peace and stability in the country and to defend his sovereignty and obey the constitution if he wins a new term.

In a country heavily dependent on dwindling oil and gas supplies, economic diversification and the role of young voters were also key campaign issues. An estimated 20% of Timorese will be voting for the first time this year in the country of 1.3 million people.

(Reporting by Kate Lamb in Sydney; Additional reporting by Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Editing by Ed Davies) Asia’s youngest democracy, East Timor, goes to the polls

Bobby Allyn

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