Timor-Leste set for weekend polls

Supporters of Parliamentary Majority Alliance - comprising the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, People's Liberation Party and youth-based Khunto party - at a campaign rally in Tasitolu, Dili, in Timor-Leste, on Tuesday.
Supporters of Parliamentary Majority Alliance - comprising the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, People's Liberation Party and youth-based Khunto party - at a campaign rally in Tasitolu, Dili, in Timor-Leste, on Tuesday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

2nd general election in less than a year, after political impasse and violence-hit campaign

DILI (Timor-Leste) • Timor-Leste is set to hold an election at the weekend, 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 yesterday, 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 led by former president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao. Some 16 people were injured and a couple of vehicles were torched, said 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 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 party.

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

Ahead of Saturday's vote, Mr Gusmao has been leaning on his role as 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 party has an alliance with the People's Liberation Party 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 a rally on Tuesday.

Mr 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 - and 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.

Some 40 per cent of Timor-Leste's people live in poverty. Providing jobs for the large numbers of young people and reining in public spending will be key tasks for the new government, analysts say.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'Timor-Leste set for weekend polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe