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East Timor

March 17, 2012

The main candidates in East Timor's presidential election are veterans from the war for independence. But that past struggle can no longer overshadow pressing issues the Southeast Asian country now faces.

Image: AP

Saturday marks the third time since gaining independence in 2002 from Indonesia that East Timor is holding presidential elections.

In 1999 the population voted in a referendum for independence but Indonesia's military and militias continued to fight and commit acts of violence. With the help of a United Nations peace mission three years later, the country was able to gain independence. The last UN troops are to withdraw by the end of 2012.

East Timor is the youngest UN member and the nation of 1.1 million people is among the poorest in the world. The incumbent hoping for re-election is Nobel Peace Prize winner Ramos Horta, who fought for independence during the Indonesian occupation while in exile.

Hero mythos

Ten years after securing independence, the role that the candidates played in the struggle against Indonesia remains crucial, says Monika Schlicher, an East Timor expert at the Watch Indonesia NGO. Two of the 12 candidates in particular play up their heroic pasts: Former military chief Matan Ruak is a veteran of the battle for independence, as is Francisco "Lu Olo" Gutteres, who once was Ruak's deputy.

Francisco Gutteres election poster
Gutteres is one of the main challengers to incumbent HortaImage: Reuters

Both Ruak and Gutteres are considered favorites for the election, along with incumbent Ramos-Horta.

"This means that again the door remains closed for a new and younger generation of politicians," said Monika Schlicher.

Critics accuse the current government of having failed to act on poverty and unemployment rates at 20 percent. The election campaign has been hard fought with candidates accusing each other of corruption, favoritism and mismanagement. Some observers have even reported acts of voter intimidation by the military.

Old and new alliances

Although Ramos-Horta is running for a second term, his chances stand worse than at the 2007 polls. Back then he got 69 percent of the vote, while Gutteres came second with 31 percent. In 2007, Ramos-Horta had the backing of national hero Xanana Gusmao and his progressive CNRT party, but the two men have since fallen out with each other. Gusmao now openly accuses the government of corruption.

Jose Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao
Jose Ramos-Horta (left) and Xanana Gusmao are no longer the team they were in 2007Image: AP

For the 2012 poll, Gusamo is throwing his weight behind Taur Matan Ruak, depicting him as the one candidate who can bring peace, stability, development and prosperity.

"So last time, Horta had the backing of the CNRT party - but his time he doesn't have his own base anymore," said political analyst Nug Katjasungkana in the capital Dili.

Raw material riches

Matan Ruak's platform includes the introduction of military service, arguing it would discipline the county's youth. Mandated service represents a controversial answer to the problems of a young generation faced with high unemployment and an uncertain future.

The rich oil and gas resources in the sea between East Timor and Australia hold a lot of promise for the country. Revenue from licensing oil exploration to foreign companies is being put into an oil fund that currently holds some $9.3 billion. In his campaign for re-election, Horta cites the high growth rates and promises to fight unemployment by investing in infrastructure. Further, he has said that if he gets re-elected, East Timor could eventually become a member of the South East Asian bloc of nations ASEAN.

Should the election fail to yield a clear winner, the decision will be made in a run-off vote in April. One month later, the country will then vote for a new parliament.

A view on 2017

Monika Schlicher says the presidental elections won't bring much of a change for East Timor. But the vote will be an important sign of stability and of the state of democracy in the young country.

It may also pave the way for a new generation of politicians by the next elections in 2017.

"By then we will have seen a change in East Timor. The generation of the resistance and the war will step down and will hand control on to the next generation," Schlicher said.

Author: Edith Koesoemawiria / ai
Editor: Greg Wiser

Matan Ruak
Matan Ruak wants to introduce military service to discipline the county's youthImage: picture-alliance/dpa