Timor-Leste's Ramos-Horta makes pitch for stability ahead of election

Ex-president seeks office again to protect constitutional integrity of country

DILI • The front runner in Timor-Leste's presidential election, independence figure and Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, has said he hopes to restore political stability to Asia's youngest democracy, as the nation prepares to head to the polls.

Timor-Leste will hold its fifth presidential election today since gaining independence, after a campaign focused on economic security and jobs.

In a streamed address to the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia late on Thursday, the 72-year-old former prime minister and president said he felt compelled to run to safeguard the constitutional integrity of Timor-Leste.

"What happened in the past few years is that the president exceeded his powers," said Mr Ramos-Horta, referring to prolonged political tensions that have hampered efforts to cut poverty, tackle corruption and develop rich energy resources.

In 2018, incumbent president and former resistance fighter Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres refused to swear in seven ministers from the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), a political party led by the country's first president and former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.

Mr Guterres said his actions were justified given judicial inquiries into alleged misconduct, but the move entrenched party divisions and led to a prolonged political impasse.

Mr Patricio da Silva, a supporter of the president, said during a recent campaign rally he still had "high hopes" that Mr Guterres would be able to win another term in office.

Mr Ramos-Horta, Mr Guterres and former army commander Lere Anan Timur are the top contenders in the election, according to a poll by the National University in Timor-Leste.

The survey showed Mr Ramos-Horta, who is backed by CNRT, in the lead with 39 per cent.

If none of the 16 candidates wins a majority, a second-round run-off will be held between the top two candidates on April 19.

This election will have the highest number of candidates ever, surpassing the 12 who contested the 2012 vote.

It will also have four female candidates - the most ever - contesting.

Approaching 20 years of independence after a brutal occupation by Indonesia, the role of young voters has been in focus with an estimated 20 per cent of the electorate first-time voters in the country of 1.3 million.

"The big issue in a society with a median age of 18 is that it has to produce a lot more jobs and educational opportunities," said Dr Michael Leach, an academic from Australia's Swinburne University, who also cites the urgency for Timor-Leste to reduce its dependence on oil and gas revenues.

Timor-Leste was officially recognised by the United Nations in 2002.

It has applied to be a member of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), where it currently holds observer status.

In the country's political system, the president also shares some executive powers and appoints a government with the power to veto ministers or dissolve Parliament.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2022, with the headline Timor-Leste's Ramos-Horta makes pitch for stability ahead of election. Subscribe