17 March 2012

President vulnerable as East Timor goes to polls

The Sydney Morning Herald Michael Bachelard March 17, 2012 - EAST TIMOR'S people could reject the well-known international figure of Jose Ramos-Horta today in favour of a more aggressive and partisan figure as their country's president.

Mr Ramos-Horta is an apparently reluctant candidate for re-election to the presidency. His main rivals Francesco ''Lu Olo'' Guterres, the candidate of the largest single parliamentary party, Fretilin, and the man known universally by his nick-name, Taur Matan Ruak, or TMR, the former leader of the small nation's armed forces, have both campaigned hard and appear to be more highly favoured.

However, in a country that has no political polling, the result is difficult to predict, with Mr Ramos-Horta still widely respected and other candidates such as Fernando ''Lasama'' de Araujo, the parliamentary speaker, also having an outside chance.
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The presidential election is the first in a series of important events in East Timor this year, the 10th anniversary of the country becoming a sovereign state.

The second event will be a parliamentary election in June and, assuming both elections are conducted peacefully and fairly, the United Nations and Australian forces, which have been based here since unrest in 2006, will withdraw later in the year.

Mr Ramos-Horta, 62, is well known to have considered not running this year in favour of becoming an international speaker and statesman, possibly at the UN. He lacks the support of either of the biggest political parties after being sometimes acerbic in his criticism of their performance in recent years.

Fretilin, is supporting Mr Guterres, and CNRT, the party of the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, which governs in coalition with smaller parties, turned its support this year from Mr Ramos-Horta to Ruak.

However, Ruak is likely to garner some votes from the Fretilin base. He is popular with the former revolutionary party and was courted repeatedly by the party's elders late last year to come on board as their candidate.

In the end, he quit his army post to run as an independent.

Some are concerned at having a figure so closely linked to the armed forces as the president in a country where the army is powerful and sometimes at odds with the police force.

There are 12 candidates for the presidency. A 13th, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, died during the campaign.

The first round of voting serves to narrow the choices to two candidates (unless one person wins an absolute majority). Counting in the first round is not expected to be finished until midweek.

The second round, next month, decides who will become president for the next five years.

Even if Mr Ramos-Horta's performance today wins him a place in the second round, his lack of party support means he may not receive the boost he requires to win.

In the 2007 election, which was marred by violence and unrest, Mr Ramos-Horta came second to Mr Guterres in the first round, but was boosted by his support from Mr Gusmao and CNRT into the presidency.

But he has become increasingly independent from CNRT and distant from his former ally Mr Gusmao over issues such as alleged corruption.

Cables released by WikiLeaks revealed him describing the country's parliament as ''corrupt and ineffective'', saying Mr Gusmao had an alcohol problem and that the former Fretilin prime minister Mari Alkatiri was ''arrogant and abusive''.

However, if Mr Ramos-Horta beats Mr Guterres into second place, it is possible he could win the support of Fretilin in the second round.

In an interview with the Herald recently, Mr Guterres said he had respected Mr Ramos-Horta's presidency in the past two years as he had begun to show more independence from Mr Gusmao. Mr Guterres also strongly criticised Ruak.

Whoever wins will have a huge task ahead of them. Despite a strong flow of oil and gas revenues and a bank account of $US9.3 billion ($8.8 billion), 41 per cent of the country's population still lives in poverty and 45 per cent of children under five are underweight.

Much of East Timor's infrastructure dates from the Indonesian era and is in need of urgent upgrading.

The good news is that despite some stirring rhetoric and strong language, the droves of supporters who have filled the campaign rallies in recent weeks have been peaceful and festive rather than violent.

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