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East Timor Vote Highlights Young Nation's Political Impasse

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Dili, East Timor, March 19, 2022.

Vote counting was under way in East Timor's presidential elections Saturday with two former fighters for independence — one current and one former president — considered to be the front-runners, each accusing the other of causing a yearslong political paralysis.

Ahead of the election day, former President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had a lead over incumbent Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres in an opinion survey. Four women were among 13 other candidates, the highest number of women taking part in the country’s fifth election since independence.

Official results were not expected until Thursday.

"I am confident that I will win the election again," Guterres told reporters after casting his vote in Dili, the capital. "I call on people to accept whatever the result and I am ready to work with whoever wins this election."

Guterres, 67, is from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor party, known by its local acronym Fretilin. Ramos-Horta, 72, is backed by the rival National Congress of the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as CNRT, a party led by former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, also an ex-resistance leader who remains influential.

More than 835,000 of the country's 1.3 million people were registered to vote. The winner will take the oath of office May 20, the 20th anniversary of East Timor's independence from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

If none of the candidates secures more than 50% of the votes in the first round, a runoff between the two top vote-getters is scheduled for April 19.

Tensions between Fretilin and CNRT, the two largest parties, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020 after the government repeatedly failed to pass a budget.

Ruak agreed to stay on until a new government is formed and to oversee the battle against the coronavirus pandemic with a $250 million war chest. His government has operated without an annual budget and has relied on monthly injections from its sovereign fund savings, called the Petroleum Fund.

Guterres refused to swear in nine people nominated by CNRT as Cabinet ministers in 2018. CNRT has accused Guterres and Fretilin of acting unconstitutionally and illegally seizing the post of speaker of parliament.

Fretilin said that Ramos-Horta is unfit to be president, accusing him of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006, when dozens were killed as political rivalries turned into open conflict on the streets of Dili.

People line up at a polling station to vote during the presidential election in Dili, East Timor, March 19, 2022.
People line up at a polling station to vote during the presidential election in Dili, East Timor, March 19, 2022.

A clash between Fretilin and CNRT supporters also broke out in 2018, leaving more than a dozen injured and cars torched.

Ramos-Horta, speaking to the media while casting his vote, said the benefits of his party's development plans would be spread more widely and vowed to work closely with Gusmao to implement them.

"We have voted based on our own wish for a new president who is able to maintain stability, to develop our economy and to change the current situation," Ramos-Horta said.

East Timor's transition to a democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption. The nation continues to recover from the bloody break for independence two decades ago, with an economy reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues and bitter factional politics.

Joaquim Fonseca, a political analyst at RENETIL, a youth organization established during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, said that no single party would be able to form a government on its own, making coalitions necessary.

"This remains a challenge for both of the candidates," said Fonseca, who is also East Timor's former ambassador to the U.K. "At this point, there is no absolute certainty that either of the candidates will bring the desired changes."

The U.N. estimates that nearly half of East Timor's population lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day and half of the children younger than 5 suffer physical and mental stunting as a result of malnutrition.

"I do hope the winning president will look after the clean water, the roads to villages and health facilities," said Lucio Cardozo, a Dili resident.

Oil revenues, which finance more than 90% of government spending, are rapidly dwindling and the country's nearly $19 billion sovereign wealth fund could be empty within a decade as the government's annual withdrawals exceed its investment returns, according to La'o Hamutuk, an East Timorese research institute.

While more than 30% of the population is illiterate, the wealthiest earn more than 42% of the national income and the bottom half take only about 16%, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations analyst and the founder of Synergy Policies, an independent consulting firm based in Jakarta.

"This is a big gap that's not easy to bridge unless there is a fundamental governance change from whoever wins the 2022 election," she said. "The elite may need to discuss different models of sharing power."