Economic woes loom large as Timor Leste goes to polls

An official with a ballot paper in the capital of Dili, where lines formed as many waited to vote in the fourth presidential election since Timor Leste won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.
An official with a ballot paper (above) in the capital of Dili, where lines formed as many waited to vote in the fourth presidential election since Timor Leste won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
An official with a ballot paper in the capital of Dili, where lines formed as many waited to vote in the fourth presidential election since Timor Leste won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.
An official with a ballot paper in the capital of Dili, where lines formed (above) as many waited to vote in the fourth presidential election since Timor Leste won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DILI • People began voting in a presidential election in Timor Leste yesterday, with the two main parties backing former independence fighters for the largely ceremonial post as Asia's youngest democracy struggles to combat poverty and chronic unemployment.

Lines formed outside polling booths as voters queued to choose from the field of eight candidates who are contesting the fourth presidential election since Timor Leste won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.

The central concern among the country's 1.2 million people has been a failure to spread the wealth from oil and gas revenues, with unemployment running at around 60 per cent.

Mr Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres - who is backed by the party that led the independence struggle, Fretilin - is regarded by many as the front runner.

He has been endorsed by resistance hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party.

"I want to change the condition of the people in all aspects, like in healthcare, education and a sustainable economic life," Mr Guterres said, after casting his vote in the capital of Dili.

  • Dependent on energy sector

    The new government will inherit a looming Budget crunch, as its main source of revenue - the Bayu-Udan field, operated by ConocoPhillips - is set to dry up in the next five years.

    That will put pressure on Timor Leste to resolve disputes with Australia that are holding back the development of a potential new source of revenue, the Greater Sunrise field.

    The energy sector accounted for around 60 per cent of Timor Leste's gross domestic product in 2014 and more than 90 per cent of government revenue. 

    REUTERS

Analysts have said that the challenge for any incoming government would be to wean the predominantly Roman Catholic nation from its reliance on oil money and to diversify Timor Leste's sources of income into agriculture and manufacturing.

The former Portuguese colony was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975.

An often violent 24-year resistance movement achieved Timor Leste's independence in 2002.

Many of its key figures still feature prominently in the running of the country.

Yesterday's election was the first since United Nations peacekeepers left the half-island nation in 2012.

Another leading candidate is Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao.

The Education Minister has secured backing from his own party, as well as from the newly formed People's Liberation Party of incumbent President Jose Maria de Vasconcelos.

Emerging from one of the polling booths, Ms Rita Sera do Carmo, who is in her 20s, said that she had voted for Mr da Conceicao.

"He has good plans that I believe can take this country to a better future," she said.

While the President's role is largely ceremonial, it is also seen as important for promoting unity in the young nation.

Mr Vasconcelos - who is also known by his former guerilla nickname Taur Matan Ruak, which means "two sharp eyes" - is expected to run for the more powerful post of prime minister in July's parliamentary polls.

If nobody gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off will be held next month between the two leading candidates.

Preliminary results are expected to be known within a few days.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Economic woes loom large as Timor Leste goes to polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe