East Timor to hold presidential poll in March

DILI (AFP) - East Timor will hold a presidential election on March 20, an official said on Wednesday (Jan 18), and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta may try to make a comeback as head of state.

It will be the third presidential vote in the tiny half-island nation since it won independence in 2002 following a brutal, 24-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia.

"The president... issued a decree Tuesday which stated that the first round of the presidential election will be held on March 20," Mr Nelyo Isaac Sarmento, state secretary for social information, told AFP.

Dr Ramos-Horta, who lived in exile during the years of occupation and was East Timor's voice on the international stage, was a major figure in the country's politics for a decade after independence serving as both prime minister and president.

He lost his post as president in 2012 elections and vowed to step back from politics, but analysts say he is considering running in the March polls for the largely ceremonial post.

However his likely rival Francisco Guterres - a former guerrilla fighter known by his nom de guerre "Lu Olo" - is seen as a stronger candidate.

Up to six candidates are expected to compete in the first round in March, said Mr Sarmento, although none has officially declared their candidacy.

No candidate is expected to win the required 50 per cent of the vote on March 20, meaning a run-off will likely be held on April 20.

Incumbent President Taur Matan Ruak is not expected to stand.

"Ruak has said he will not stand again as president and is very widely expected to run for parliament, with the intention of becoming prime minister," said Professor Damien Kingsbury, an East Timor expert at Australia's Deakin University.

Nearly 750,000 Timorese are registered voters, Mr Sarmento said.

The presidential poll sets the stage for parliamentary elections expected in July, which are more important as they will decide who becomes prime minister.

During the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, a poor country of 1.1 million people with an oil-dependent economy, around 183,000 people died from fighting, starvation or disease.

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