East Timor: Ex-guerilla fighter set to be next president
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East Timor: Ex-guerilla fighter set to be next president

ASIA’S youngest and poorest nation, East Timor (Timor Leste), has cast its ballots in a general election, with former guerrilla leader Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres looking to be made president.

In the first election to be held since peacekeeping troops left the country in 2012, a high proportion of East Timor’s almost 750,000 registered voters turned out to polling stations in the former Portuguese colony.

Eight candidates contested the election, but with 90 percent of the vote counted after Monday’s election, Guterres had secured 57 percent of the vote.

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East Timorese line up to vote in the presidential election in Dili, East Timor, on March 20, 2017. Source: Reuters/Lirio da Fonseca

Guterres is the president of leftist party and former guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). Prior to East Timorese independence, he was elected as general coordinator of the Council of Armed Resistance and elected Fretilin president in 2001.

A second-round election was set to be held on April 20, 2017, if required, but preliminary results suggest a runoff won’t happen. The other front-runner, current Education and Social Affairs Minister Antonio de Conceicao of the Democratic Party, received only 32 percent of the vote.

Democracy watchdog Freedom House says the elected president is a “largely symbolic figure”, whose formal powers are limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments.

Nevertheless, the election of a former revolutionary guerrilla is emblematic of the current political sentiment of the nation of 1.2 million people.

Guterres ran against Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta in the 2007 election and was definitively beaten at a runoff poll. In the 2012 election, Guterres again lost to former military commander Taur Matan Ruak, the current president.

Yet in 2017, his overwhelming victory came after he secured the support of Xanana Gusmão – East Timor revolutionary hero in the struggle against Indonesian occupation. He led the resistance from a jail cell in Jakarta until he was released in 1999, after the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto, and was elected the first East Timor president in 2002.

SEE ALSO: East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao submits resignation

“We are not a perfect state … it is very early. That is why you have to trust Lu-Olo to keep the country united,” Gusmão said, adding “there is some opinion younger leaders should be elected. But no way.”

During the campaign, Guterres promised if “chosen to be president of East Timor, I will prioritise the economic and education sectors, to support the welfare of the people.”

Some netizens were quick to congratulate the presumed next president, including an official from Conceicao’s rival Democratic Party who posted about the impending victory on Facebook.

“Congratulations to Dr Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo, elected president of the RDTL (Democratic Republic of East Timor) for the period 2017-2022,” wrote Carlos Saky.

East Timor’s economy is highly reliant upon oil and gas, which accounted for more than 90 percent of government revenue in 2014.

“The next five years with new leadership is a critical time because the currently used oil fields are mostly depleted,” said Charles Scheiner of La’o Hamutuk, a think tank in Dili.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index recognised East Timor as the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia, ranking higher than the older democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines based on 60 indicators.

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Election officials start the vote counting process of the presidential election in Dili, East Timor, on March 20, 2017. Source: Reuters/Lirio da Fonseca

As the region’s newest democracy, East Timor’s 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections were declared by international observers to be largely free and fair.

East Timor voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation which had left more than 170,000 people dead.