East Timor chooses president in runoff amid political row

Voters in East Timor chose a president in a runoff Tuesday between former independence fighters who blame themselves for years of political paralysis.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta had a sizable lead in the first round of the election, but failed to top 50% of the vote and avoid the second round. Ramos-Horta won 46.6%, incumbent President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres won 22.1% and 14 other candidates tied up the remaining votes in the March 19 election.

Ramos-Horta, 72, and Guterres, 67, were resistance figures during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. More than 76% of votes last month went to resistance-era figures, showing how much they dominate politics after two decades despite the emergence of younger voices.

Polling stations closed at 3 p.m. and counting began in 1,200 polling centers across the small country. Preliminary results may not be known until Wednesday.

The winner of the second round takes office on May 20, the 20th anniversary of the restoration of independence in East Timor.

“I call on people to wisely accept the results of this election,” António Guterres told reporters during a vote in Dili, the capital.

Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor from 2007 to 2012, and Guterres blame themselves for years of political paralysis.

In 2018, Guterres refused to swear in nine Cabinet candidates of the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as the CNRT, a party led by former prime minister and independence leader Xanana Gusmao, which backed the Ramos-Horta’s candidacy for the presidency.

Guterres is from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by its local acronym Fretilin, which had led the resistance to Indonesian rule.

Fretilin says Ramos-Horta is unfit for the presidency, accusing him of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006, when dozens were killed as political rivalries escalated into open conflict in the streets of Dili.

The latest standoff led to Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak’s resignation in February 2020. But he agreed to stay on until a new government is formed and oversee the response to the coronavirus pandemic. His government operated without an annual budget and relied on monthly injections from its sovereign wealth fund savings, called Petroleum Funds.

During his campaign, Ramos-Horta said he would call a snap parliamentary election if a new majority – based in the center on the CNRT – could not be negotiated between the parties in the current parliament. Many fear that the early calling of elections will inflame rather than calm tensions between parties.

Ramos-Horta’s dominant first-round lead could further weaken the current ruling alliance – Fretilin, the People’s Liberation Party or PLP and Khunto – in backing Guterres. Ruak’s PLP party and rural Khunto party have publicly pledged to continue their alliance with Fretilin until the 2023 legislative elections.

Ramos-Horta, after voting in Dili, said people were too tired of the political wrangling, which he said led to ignoring social and economic issues as well as soaring food prices. “The people of East Timor want a new leader to solve the economic problems of this country,” he said.

He pledged to reduce poverty, provide health services for mothers and children and create more jobs if elected, and pledged to establish communication with ruling parties to restore the constitutional mandate and prevent a more severe economic downturn.

He also said he would push for East Timor to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations within the next two years. “This is a very important issue for us and I will maintain diplomatic contacts with ASEAN leaders to make it happen,” he told reporters.

The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia for a quarter of a century and gained independence after a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999. The Indonesian military responded with scorched earth attacks that devastated the East Timorese half of the island of Timor.

The transition to democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption. Its economy depends on dwindling offshore oil revenues.

Turnout in the March 19 elections was 77.26 percent, 6 percent higher than in 2017, the election commission said. Four women were among the 16 candidates, the highest number of women contesting the fifth election since independence.