Timor Leste votes for Parliament amid huge challenges

Citizens of Timor Leste lining up to vote during parliamentary election in Dili on July 22, 2017.
Citizens of Timor Leste lining up to vote during parliamentary election in Dili on July 22, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

DILI, EAST TIMOR (AFP) -  Timor Leste headed to the polls to elect a new Parliament on Saturday (July 22) as Asia's youngest democracy battles economic challenges 15 years after gaining its independence from Indonesia.

About 760,000 people are expected to cast their votes for candidates from 21 parties in the tiny half-island nation, in the first parliamentary election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012.

The polls come at a challenging time for the country, with key oil reserves running dry while the government struggles to resolve a long-running row with Australia over lucrative energy fields.

But despite fears of violence, there were no reports of unrest in the run-up to the election.

"I am happy I can vote today because it's important we choose the best to lead our country," said voter Mateus Araujo.

The parliamentary election will determine the choice of prime minister for the former Portuguese colony.

The prime minister, chosen by the winning party or a coalition of parties in Parliament, oversees the government and is the most influential political figure in the country.

Timor Leste voted for a new president in March with Francisco Guterres - known by his nom de guerre "Lu-Olo" - winning the presidency, a role which is largely ceremonial but can help keep 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.

Both parties are expected to fare well in the parliamentary election.

Timor Leste faces huge problems with half of its population living in poverty and the current government struggling to improve the livelihoods of its 1.2 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.

Polls will close at 4 pm (3pm Singapore time) and preliminary results will be known by evening, though official results will only be announced early August.

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