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Asia-Pacific

Former guerrillas dominate East Timor's presidential election

media Francisco Guterres casting his ballot REUTERS/Lirio da Fonseca

People in East Timor (Timor Leste) went to the polls to elect a president on Monday. They had to choose between eight candidates with former guerrilla fighter Fransisco Guterres, nicknamed Lu-Olo, tipped to win.

The vote came at a challenging time for the tiny half-island nation 15 years after independence from Indonesia, with oil reserves running dry and its leaders struggling to reach agreement with Australia over lucrative energy fields.

East Timor has a population of only 1.2 million people but the results will take a few days to process.

But observers are happy. 

“It's been a very good election process,” says Damian Kingsbury, an official observer from Australia. “It's been quite well run, it has been a celebration of the opportunity and the right to be able to vote for political leaders.

This is the first election that's been run without international assistance and, although there have been some minor technical problems, it has been a very successful process.

Guterres is expected to win. He was once the general coordinator of the resistance against Indonesian rule.

“The voting result as we have right now, shows that the country's leadership is still largely dominated by high-profile resistance leaders,” says Khoo Ying Hooi, of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Former rebel leaders Xanana Gusmao, José Ramos Horta, Taur Matan Ruak, Maria Alcateri, all became presidents and prime ministers after independence and still call the political shots.

Elections in East Timor 20/03/2017 - by Jan van der Made Listen

“Back in 2012 Xanana Gusmao's influence was seen in his support of Taur Matan Ruat,” says Khoo Ying Hooi. “This time around, his strong support for Lu Olu as president has proven that Timorese are still looking at the history when they vote."

East Timor is currently fighting another battle - this time against Australia in the courtrooms of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Dili is demanding access to large stretches of sea that may contain rich oilfields, potentially worth billions of euros.

Indonesia keeps out of election

With its other neighbour, former occupying power Indonesia, East Timor seems to have reached an agreement.

“There was an official decision taken many years ago that the two countries needed to establish a positive bilateral relationship,” says Kingsbury, who crossed the border between East Timor and Indonesian-ruled West Timor to find Indonesians “very curious about the election process”.

But he did not sense that Indonesia tried to influence the elections.

“Leaderships of both countries worked very hard to achieve cooperation,” he says, pointing at a recently developed joint Indonesian-East Timorese police training programme.

But he says that decades of occupation that ended in brutal bloodshed before independence is still felt amongst the Timorese, especially the fact that significant human rights abuses by the Indonesian military were not properly addressed.

If that will ever happen, he doesn’t know.

“The reality is that East Timor, a very small country with only 1.2 million people is surrounded by big Indonesia with more than 240 million. So it is just a practical necessity to get along with this neighbour,” he says. 

Back to politics. Even though the old fighters are still dominating the scene, change may be in the air.

“A younger generation of leaders is emerging,” says Khoo Ying Hooi. “Many are supporting the Popular Liberation Party (PLP).”

The newly formed PLP did not field a presidential candidate but is expected tol campaign in parliamentary elections set for July.

"Voting for them is like getting yourself out from the status-quo in the comfort zone of the conventional Timorese politics,” Khoo Ying Hooi says.

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