Timor Leste gears up for election after violence-hit campaign

Supporters of various politcal parties, such as the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (Conselho Nacional de Reconstrucao de Timor, CNRT), attend a campaign rally for the upcoming parliamentary election in Tasitolu, Dili, Timor Leste, on May 8, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DILI (AFP) - Timor Leste is set to hold weekend elections after a campaign marred by violence and political mudslinging as the impoverished country struggles to buoy its oil-dependent economy.

It will be the second general election in less than a year after a months-long political impasse saw the 65-member parliament dissolved in January.

Political parties on the tiny half-island nation of 1.2 million people made their final pitch to voters on Wednesday (May 9), wrapping up a tension-filled campaign.

Violent weekend clashes broke out between supporters of the Fretilin party and backers of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) led by former president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Some 16 people were injured and a couple of vehicles were torched, according to the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission.

Timor Leste - a former Portuguese colony which won independence in 2002 after a brutal, 24-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia - has been wracked by violence before.

In 2006, dozens were killed as political rivalries erupted into open conflict on the streets of the capital Dili.

The fragile democracy wobbled again this year as Parliament was dissolved and new elections called amid tensions between former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's minority government and the opposition centred around Mr Gusmao's CNRT.

Dr Alkatiri's Fretilin party, which narrowly won last July's poll, collapsed after its bid to introduce a policy programme and new budget were thwarted by a hostile opposition.

For decades, the so-called 1975 Generation of independence heroes, including Dr Alkatiri and Mr Gusmao, have played an outsized role in the political landscape.

Mr Gusmao, a leader of the resistance against Indonesia, was Timor Leste's first President between 2002 and 2007 and then Prime Minister from 2007 to 2015.

Dr Alkatiri, who was forced into exile following the Indonesian invasion in 1975, served as Timor Leste's first Prime Minister between 2002 and 2006.

Ahead of the vote on Saturday, Mr Gusmao has been leaning on his role as the lead negotiator in settling a maritime boundary with Australia in March.

The treaty, which ends a decades-long dispute over oil rights in the Timor Sea, could open the door to billions of dollars in royalties in a potential revenue-sharing deal from the Greater Sunrise offshore gas fields in the Timor Sea.

Mr Gusmao's CNRT has an alliance with the People's Liberation Party (PLP) and the youth-based Khunto, making the so-called Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) the largest political bloc in the country.

"If AMP wins we will support rapid economic development and bring oil to Timor Leste," Mr Gusmao told tens of thousand of flag waving supporters at rally on Tuesday.

Dr Alkatiri, a Muslim politician in the majority-Catholic country, has also promised to boost development, with the clock ticking on fast disappearing oil and gas reserves - putting pressure on any new government to diversify the economy.

Oil and gas pay for the bulk of government spending, but oil revenues are in steep decline, and the country has few other productive economic sectors.

About 60 per cent of Timor Leste's population is under 25, according to the World Bank, while some 40 per cent of its people live in poverty.

Providing jobs for the enormous amount of young people and reining in public spending - especially on large infrastructure projects - will be key tasks for the new government, analysts say.

"Everyone in Timor Leste has been talking about economic diversification and a focus on agriculture, but it is still unclear what they are going to do about it," Mr Guteriano Neves, an independent policy analyst based in Dili, told AFP.

"You have to spend less and deliver more - that is the hard task the future government will have to face."

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