Timor Leste votes in presidential poll seen as sign of stability

Residents lining up to cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential election in Dili, Timor Leste, on March 20, 2017.
Residents lining up to cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential election in Dili, Timor Leste, on March 20, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

DILI, Timor Leste (AFP) - Timor Leste voted for a new president on Monday (March 20), 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 gaining independence, with oil reserves running dry and its leaders struggling to reach agreement with Australia in a row 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.

Mr Francisco Guterres, known by his nom de guerre "Lu-Olo", is the favourite to win the presidency which is largely ceremonial, but can have a key role in keeping the peace between the country's feuding politicians.

He is leader of the second-biggest party, Fretilin, and also received 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,” Mr 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. 

Current President Taur Matan Ruak is not seeking re-election.

Analysts say the unified candidacy will boost stability in a nation that has been repeatedly rocked by bouts of violence since gaining independence in 2002 following a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation.

"That is good from the point of view of stability, because competitive politics can raise tensions," said Professor Damien Kingsbury, a Timor Leste expert from Australia's Deakin University.

Prof 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 having no viable opposition could raise concerns about the government's accountability.

Mr Guterres is from a humble family and like many members of Timor Leste's political class participated in the bloody struggle against Indonesian occupation. He was Fretilin's unsuccessful candidate for presidential polls in 2007.

There are eight candidates running in the presidential polls, and whoever wins will preside over a nation with huge challenges.

Timor Leste 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 to a new sea border with Australia after tearing up a contentious maritime treaty that cuts through energy fields.

Polls close at 3pm local time (2pm Singapore time) and preliminary results should be known within a few days.

Many of the candidates are not serious contenders and are more concerned with raising the profile of their parties before the more important parliamentary elections that will decide the government and prime minister.

Well-known figures closely associated with the independence struggle have in the past held the presidency, including Gusmao and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta. But many have now withdrawn from the front line of politics to let a new generation take over.

Indonesia moved into Timor Leste in 1975 after colonial master Portugal withdrew. During the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, around 183,000 people died from fighting, starvation or disease.