DILI - East Timor voted for a new president on Monday, with a former guerrilla fighter tipped for victory after winning the backing of the two biggest parties, in a new sign of stability for Asia’s youngest nation.
The vote comes at a challenging time for the tiny half-island nation 15 years after independence, with oil reserves running dry and its leaders struggling to reach agreement with Australia over lucrative energy fields.
It is the first presidential election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012. But despite fears of violence there has been only sporadic and low-level unrest in the run-up to the vote.
Francisco Guterres, known by his nom de guerre “Lu-Olo” was favourite to win the presidency, which is largely ceremonial but can have a key role in keeping the peace between feuding politicians.
He is leader of the second-biggest party Fretilin and also won the backing of independence hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party, the country’s largest.
“I am sure I will win, that there will be no second round,” Guterres, who is facing seven challengers for the presidency, said after casting his vote in the capital Dili. He will have to secure over 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off in April.
Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao is seen as his closest rival in the fourth presidential election since East Timor gained independence in 2002 following a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation. Current President Taur Matan Ruak is not seeking re-election.
Analysts say Guterres’s unified candidacy will help stabilise a nation repeatedly rocked by bouts of violence.
“That is good from the point of view of stability, because competitive politics can raise tensions,” said Damien Kingsbury, an East Timor expert from Australia’s Deakin University.
Kingsbury said it suggests that the country will continue to be led by a unity government following parliamentary elections later in the year. But he added that the absence of a viable opposition could raise concerns about government accountability.
Guterres is from a humble family and like many members of East Timor’s political class took part in the bloody struggle against Indonesian occupation. He was Fretilin’s unsuccessful candidate for presidential polls in 2007.
Vasco Pires de Jesus, a 58-year-old labourer, said he was voting for him because “he is a fighter who fought alongside Xanana Gusmao in the forest to bring independence to this country”.
Whoever wins the vote will preside over a nation with huge challenges. East Timor remains a deeply poor country and the government has struggled to improve the livelihoods of its 1.1 million people.
As well as diversifying the resource-rich economy away from a reliance on oil, the country’s leaders must agree a new sea border with Australia after tearing up a contentious maritime treaty that cuts through energy fields.