DILI, East Timor: East Timor voted for a new president Monday, with a former guerrilla fighter tipped for victory after winning the backing of the two biggest parties, in a new sign of stability for Asia’s youngest nation.
The vote comes at a challenging time for the tiny half-island nation 15 years after gaining independence, with oil reserves running dry and its leaders struggling to reach agreement with Australia in a row over lucrative energy fields.
It is the first presidential election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012 but despite fears of violence, there has been only sporadic and low-level unrest in the run-up to the vote.
Francisco Guterres, known by his nom de guerre “Lu-Olo,” is favorite to win the presidency which is largely ceremonial but can have a key role in keeping the peace between the country’s feuding politicians.
He is leader of the second-biggest party, Fretilin, and also received the backing of independence hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party, the country’s largest.
Analysts say the unified candidacy will boost stability in a nation that has been repeatedly rocked by bouts of violence since gaining independence in 2002 following a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation.
“That is good from the point of view of stability, because competitive politics can raise tensions,” Damien Kingsbury, an East Timor expert from Australia’s Deakin University, told AFP.
Kingsbury said it suggests that the country will continue to be led by a unity government following parliamentary elections later in the year.
But he added that having no viable opposition could raise concerns about the government’s accountability.
Guterres is from a humble family and like many members of East Timor’s political class participated in the bloody struggle against Indonesian occupation. He was Fretilin’s unsuccessful candidate for presidential polls in 2007.
There are eight candidates running in the presidential polls, and whoever wins will preside over a nation with huge challenges.
East Timor remains a deeply poor country and the government has struggled to improve the livelihoods of its 1.1 million people.
As well as diversifying the resource-rich economy away from a reliance on oil, the country’s leaders must agree a new sea border with Australia after tearing up a contentious maritime treaty that cuts through energy fields.
If none of the candidates win more than 50 percent of votes Monday, the election will go to a run-off in April. Polls close at 3:00 pm and preliminary results should be known within a few days.
Many of the candidates are not serious contenders and are more concerned with raising the profile of their parties before the more important parliamentary elections that will decide the government and prime minister.
During the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, around 183,000 people died from fighting, starvation or disease.