East Timor prepares for elections to break political deadlock

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DILI, East Timor (AP) — Thousands of people in East Timor flocked to presidential campaign rallies on Wednesday, days before an election that will test the young nation’s stability amid a protracted political crisis and economic uncertainty.

Supporters of incumbent President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres filled the Tasitolu pitch in the capital, Dili, wearing red shirts and waving banners and flags of Guterres’ party – the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known under its local acronym Fretilin.

Guterres, 67, a former guerrilla leader, is running against 15 other candidates, including four women. Polls have shown that Guterres and former President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, are first, with Ramos-Horta in the lead.

Ramos-Horta, 72, announced he would run again in January, a decade after his first term ended. He is supported by the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as CNRT, a party led by former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, a former resistance leader who remains influential.

East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that has killed more than 170,000 people. The Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias responded to the independence referendum with scorched earth attacks that devastated the East Timorese half of the island.

The fledgling nation had a difficult childhood, with a moribund economy dependent on dwindling offshore oil revenues and bitter factional politics that at times erupted into violence.

Over the past four years, ongoing tensions between the two largest parties, Fretilin and CNRT, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020 after repeatedly failing to pass a budget.

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

Guterres refused to swear in almost all cabinet candidates in 2018, so the government is made up of ministers from two small parties and several portfolios remain vacant.

The CNRT accused Guterres and Fretilin of having acted unconstitutionally and illegally in seizing the post of speaker of parliament.

Fretilin said Horta was incompetent to be president, accusing him of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006 when dozens were killed as political rivalries boiled over into open conflict on the streets of Dili.

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

“I will not create a new crisis but I want to restore our constitution and promote dialogue with all political parties in my first term,” Horta said. He ended his campaign rally on Tuesday, a day early to avoid possible clashes between rival supporters.

More than 835,000 of the country’s 1.3 million people registered to vote on Saturday, which also marks the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, which had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

If none of the candidates obtains more than 50% of the votes in the first round, a second round between the two best voters is scheduled for April 19.

The Southeast Asian nation still faces dire poverty. Leaders including Gusmao, who served as East Timor’s first president from 2002 to 2007, and prime minister from 2007 to 2015, have focused on expensive infrastructure projects to grow the economy, financing them from dwindling supply of former oil wealth.

But little progress has been made in rural areas, where nearly 70% of East Timorese live. The UN estimates that nearly half the population lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day and that half of children under 5 suffer from stunted physical and mental growth in due to malnutrition.

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