EAST Timor headed to the polls Saturday in a parliamentary election that could determine the economic future of Asia’s youngest democracy.
The economy, corruption and the government’s failure to use the wealth generated by oil and gas sales to support development and create jobs has dominated the weeks of political rallies leading up to today’s vote.
More than 20 political parties are vying for 65 seats in this tiny country of just 1.2 million people. In a country dogged by conflict and political upheaval, there was calm and good humour on Saturday morning as polling stations opened for the 750,000 registered voters to cast their ballot.
The parliamentary poll, which will determine the next prime minister, follows the victory of former independence fighter Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres in a presidential election in March.
The president is largely a figurehead, with the government run by a prime minister chosen by the party or coalition that wins the majority of votes.
Former independence fighter Xanana Gusmao and his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party are seen as the front-runners in today’s vote.
The current government is a coalition of two major parties — Gusmao’s CNRT, and Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.
According to the AAP (via SBS) Lu-Olo and his wife, Cidalia Mouzinho Guterres, joined families and several other members of parliament at a polling station at a primary school in the capital, Dili, where he praised the “peace and stability” of the campaign.
“I feel happy and proud that during the one-month campaign. These people are already showing the international community that in Timor Leste we hold (elections) in peace and stability,” he told reporters.
A major concern throughout the campaign has been the government’s reliance on oil and gas revenue to fund projects, salaries and services, with fears that unless the economy diversifies quickly, the country will run out of money within 10 to 15 years.
The energy sector accounted for around 60 percent of GDP in 2014 and more than 90 percent of government revenue.
Analysts have said the challenge for any incoming government would be to diversify its sources of income into agriculture and manufacturing.
In a country in which half of the population live in poverty, today’s voters expressed most concern over tackling corruption, providing jobs and focusing on basic needs such as health, sanitation and education.
“What we need and what is essential to us is three things: electricity, water and roads,” 57-year-old government worker Aleixo da Costa Sarmento told AAP while casting his vote.
“They must create more jobs for the youth because so many are still unemployed.
“We must fight against the corruption. People cannot live and move forward because corruption only makes one or two people rich.”
The former Portuguese colony was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975. An often violent 24-year resistance movement took East Timor to independence in 2002 and many of its key figures still feature prominently in running the country.
Polls will close at 3pm local time and preliminary results will be known by evening, though official results will only be announced early August.
Additional reporting by Reuters