Le Pays De France - East Timor heads to the polls amid political deadlock

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East Timor heads to the polls amid political deadlock
East Timor heads to the polls amid political deadlock

East Timor heads to the polls amid political deadlock

East Timor will hold presidential polls on Saturday, with the winner facing a Covid and cyclone-battered economy, as well as a protracted political impasse.

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Around 860,000 voters are registered to choose the next head of state in Southeast Asia's youngest country.

The field of 16 candidates includes incumbent Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, as well as former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and former Catholic priest Martinho Germano da Silva Gusmao.

While the presidency is mainly a ceremonial post in the tiny half-island nation of 1.3 million, pundits see this as a chance to reset a political balance currently deadlocked between the two main parties.

"We have to get the machine going again after a paralysis that generated an economic crisis because of the inability to vote on budgets" for several years, said Christine Cabasset, a specialist on Timor and deputy director of the Bangkok-based Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

First hammered by the pandemic, East Timor's economy took another hit last year when Cyclone Seroja struck, killing at least 40 people on its half of the island and transforming communities into wastelands of mud and uprooted trees.

Sitting President Guterres, from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) party, was elected in 2017 with around 57 percent of the vote.

But the 67-year-old former guerilla fighter's shot at a second term has been complicated by Ramos-Horta, another key figure in the independence struggle who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, and then as president from 2007 to 2012.

Some of the country's biggest political heavyweights, including the National Congress of the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) and its charismatic leader and the country's first president Xanana Gusmao, have switched to endorsing the 72-year-old this election.

General Lere Anan Timur, also from the Fretilin party, is another serious challenger.

If no one manages an absolute majority, a second round of voting will be held on April 19. The winner will take office May 20, as East Timor celebrates its 20th anniversary of independence from Indonesia, which occupied the neighbouring former Portuguese colony for 24 years.

While most of the candidates played some role in the resistance, the events remain history to the young electorate in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old.

Of more pressing concern is the safety of the polls, as major political events in East Timor have often been marred by violence.

In 2018, more than a dozen people were injured and several cars torched after clashes between Fretilin and CNRT supporters.

Dozens were killed in 2006 as political rivalries turned into open conflict on the streets of the capital, Dili.