quinta-feira, 15 de março de 2012

Timor-Leste goes to the polls in year of change

Posted: 15 March 2012 1835 hrs
  Residents wait for their free sack of rice from the government, being distributed at a veterans centre in Dili on March 15, 2012 that will be used as polling centre. (AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD)
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Residents wait for their free sack of rice from the government, being distributed at a veterans centre in Dili on March 15, 2012 that will be used as polling centre. (AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD)


DILI: A decade after winning formal independence from Indonesia, Timor-Leste will hold its second presidential election as a free state Saturday in a pivotal year for the impoverished oil-dependent nation.

The vote is the first in a series of key events in the chronically unstable country, still traumatised by Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation which ended with a bloody vote for separation by Timorese in 1999.

Among Timor-Leste's many problems is its heavy reliance on energy reserves, which account for around 90 per cent of state revenues.

Timor-Leste is labelled by the International Monetary Fund as the "most oil-dependent economy in the world", relying on a petroleum fund that reached $9.3 billion last year.

In May, Timor-Leste will celebrate 10 years of independence, which came after three years of UN administration following the violent referendum. Then in June, voters will choose a new government in a general election.

At the end of the year, the half-island nation of 1.1 million people bids goodbye to UN forces stationed in the country since the 1999 independence vote.

Constitutionally, the presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but its profile has been boosted by incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate who for decades has been the international face of Timor-Leste.

Ramos-Horta, who survived a 2008 assassination attempt, is the second post-independence president after Xanana Gusmao - the former anti-Indonesia rebel leader who is now prime minister.

Twelve candidates are running for the presidency but the race is expected to be a three-way contest between Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin party's Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, and former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak.

"The elections are very important because of this security transition," said Aderito Hugo Da Costa, a member of parliament from Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party.

"If it goes peacefully, this process will show people here and elsewhere that we are ready and moving on the right track."

Both Ruak and Guterres, ex-guerrilla leaders and heroes of the resistance, are banking on lingering anti-Indonesia sentiment.

Indonesia's occupation of Timor-Leste is estimated to have claimed up to 183,000 lives through genocide, disease and starvation, according to the country's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

After supporting Ramos-Horta in the 2007 election, the CNRT will this time back Ruak, with insiders attributing the switch to the incumbent's criticisms of the government.

The popular 62-year-old president says he is too busy with state matters to run an active campaign, while other contenders have been campaigning nationwide.

The drab streets of the capital Dili have been festooned with colourful banners and posters of frontrunners.

Droves of mainly young supporters -- spilling out of honking buses and cars, or perched in fours or fives on motorcycles -- have been racing through the streets in the run-up to the vote.

Supporters wearing T-shirts bearing their candidate's picture flash victory signs or yell "viva" in the country where Portuguese colonisers left their mark through the language.

This election period has largely been peaceful, in contrast to the rioting and factional fighting that broke out in 2006 ahead of parliamentary elections the following year.

The violence left 37 dead and brought the country close to civil war.

Campaigning officially ended Thursday, but efforts to sway voters continued.

At a centre for veterans of the guerrilla war against Indonesia on Thursday, around 100 people queued for free sacks of rice under a banner urging them to vote.

"We were just asked to show up and each family is receiving a sack of rice," 73-year-old retired farmer Armando Ximenes Sousa said.

Asked if that would influence him to vote for Ruak, he said: "No, this has nothing to with that."

But Jose Teixeira, an advisor to Guterres, disagreed.

"This is happening nationwide. Vote buying. Nothing short of it," he said.

Looking ahead, Da Costa said that a resolution of a territorial dispute with Australia over the giant Greater Sunrise gas and oil field in the Timor Sea was crucial to Timor-Leste's economic progress.

The field has 300 million barrels of oil and 2.53 trillion cubic metres of gas, according to Australian government figures, with Timor-Leste's share worth nearly $20 billion over 40 years.

But the riches will only transform Timor-Leste if the money is spent well, Guterres said, highlighting the need to address accusations of rampant corruption in the current government.


Ramos-Horta on the outer as vote looms

Quinta-feira, 15 de Março de 2012

The Sydney Morning Herald - Karlis Salna, AAP South-East Asia Correspondent - March 15, 2012


East Timor's incumbent president, Jose Ramos-Horta, remains nonchalant even though this weekend could mark the beginning of the end for his career as one of the country's most respected and renowned political figures.

East Timorese will vote on Saturday in the first round of presidential elections which will also mark 10 years since one of the world's youngest nations gained independence.

If no candidate scores at least 50 per cent of the vote, a second-round run-off between the top two candidates will be held a fortnight later.

Mr Ramos-Horta, a former prime minister and one of three front-runners in the 2012 presidential poll, has been a key player in both East Timor's path to independence during a brutal 24-year occupation at the hands of Indonesia, as well as its democratic trajectory since.

But it is becoming increasingly likely the Nobel Peace Prize winner will bow out of the race this weekend, with observers on the ground suggesting the poll is shaping up as a contest between Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, from the traditionally strong leftist Fretelin party, and the country's former defence forces chief Taur Matan Ruak.

In 2007, it was the endorsement of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor party (CNRT) which saw Mr Ramos-Horta win the run-off with 69 per cent of the vote, after having trailed Mr Guterres in the first round.

Prime Minister Gusmao and CNRT, however, have since shifted their support to Mr Ruak, delivering a blow to Mr Ramos-Horta and his chances of re-election.

Even so, the 40-year veteran of the East Timorese political scene, who served as the exiled spokesman for the resistance during the years of the Indonesian occupation, appears at peace.

"I don't feel one way or another," Mr Ramos-Horta told AAP of his chances during what has been a deliberately low-key campaign.

Mr Ramos-Horta has previously suggested that his desire to run again had waned. Before he announced his candidacy in January, he had said he was "almost determined not to seek a second term".

"I feel that I'm confident enough about the country, the way it is and how it's going that I can say it doesn't need me," he said at the time.

He finally threw his hat into the ring in January after meeting 2000 supporters from East Timor's 13 electoral districts. They presented him with a petition that Mr Ramos-Horta's office said carried the signatures of more than 100,000 people pleading for him to stand for re-election.

Even so, he faces an uphill battle in overcoming the campaigning power of Fretelin and CNRT in a poll which is also seen as a key pointer to the outcome of parliamentary elections in mid-June.

East Timor's economy, although largely driven by oil revenue, has maintained average growth of close to 10 per cent over the past five years under the Gusmao government.

A petroleum fund set up to manage oil revenues was as of September last year valued at more than $8 billion.

According to analysts, the country's improved stability will help shore up support for CNRT and in turn for Mr Ruak, meaning fewer votes for Mr Ramos-Horta.

However, the main opposition party Fretelin maintains that many East Timorese have been left behind, with Mr Guterres saying the government had "roundly failed" to provide for the basic needs and demands of the people.

"The economy (apart from oil) is not productive and the lives of the people in every aspect are turning more difficult," he said.

One issue upon which all three leading candidates agree is that East Timor must avoid returning to the violence and factional fighting which took the country to the brink of civil war in 2006, and which marred elections in 2007 and led to assassination attempts on Mr Ramos-Horta and Mr Gusmao in 2008.

All three candidates also share the view that the contingent of just under 1000 United Nations security personnel and some 400 Australian troops, deployed in the wake of the 2006 unrest, must leave East Timor by the end of the year.

© 2012 AAP