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Can East Timor make the great leap forward?

As East Timor heads to the polls this year, starting with the presidential election next month, it will be embarking on a new and hopefully more positive phase of its often troubled development. East Timor now appears to be moving along a path of stability and hope, but a number of major issues await its new government but.

First among the issues to confront East Timor’s new government will be how to handle the withdrawal of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force later in the year. East Timor is now much more stable since the 2006 crisis and looks to remain so, but its police are still poorly trained and underlying problems continue, including poverty and high levels of unemployment.

The UN will also largely withdraw in the second half of the year, meaning that East Timor will be much more on its own. Many aid agencies will stay on, but the high levels of foreign support will disappear. For a country which began a slow collapse following the withdrawal of the UN in 2003, many view this transition with some nervousness.

The second issue East Timor will have to resolve is its fraught negotiations with Woodside Petroleum over an $18 billion natural gas processing project in the Timor Sea, which is critical to the country’s economic success. More positively, its once difficult relations with its giant neighbour, Indonesia, are now largely settled, not least through East Timor not pressing for war crimes trials that many still believe are due.

East Timor has made real moves towards lifting its people out of absolute poverty, especially over the past five years, but many basic problems remain. With an economy dominated by oil and gas and its currency a high value US dollar, there is almost no industry in East Timor and unemployment remains worryingly high.

So, too, while the birth rate has dropped from the world’s highest of eight live births per female of a few years ago, it is still unsustainably high at six. East Timor’s population of 1.2 million already significantly exceeds the capacity of the harsh and often barren half island to provide for its own people, so East Timor is now reliant of food imports to survive.

More positively, the perennial problem of starvation has been largely alleviated through government subsidised rice, education is improving and very high levels of infant and maternal mortality are reducing. Electrification is being rolled out across the country, bringing power to towns and villages that have little or no electricity.

It is against this backdrop that the presidential election will be held on 17 March. Of the 14 presidential canddiates, three are considered to have most chance of success. The incumbent, Jose Ramos-Horta, is best known to outsiders and has established himself as a well-liked if sometimes controversial president.

Ramos-Horta was Timor-Leste’s best known international advocate during the country’s 24 year occupation by Indonesia, for which he jointly won a Nobel Peace Prize. Ramos-Horta returned to be appointed foreign minister, briefly prime minister and then elected as president. In early 2008 he was shot and critically wounded by renegade soldiers, with this event being a catalyst for resolving a number of the country’s immediate problems.

Despite their previously close relationship, his falling out with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao now means that Ramos-Horta is unlikely to receive substantial party support for his second presidential bid. He will therefore struggle to make it into the second round of voting for the presidency, scheduled for 14 April.

Much of Ramos-Horta’s party support has now shifted to former commander of Timor-Leste’s armed forces, Brig-Gen (ret.) Jose Maria Vasconcelos, a.k.a. ‘Taur Matan Ruak’. Vasconcelos has the support of the main government party, CNRT, led by Xanana Gusmao, so will probably proceed to the second electoral round.

Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, returns for 2012 and can count on the approximately 30% vote he received in 2007. The real question is, with Ramos-Horta and Vasconcelos dividing most of the rest of the vote between them, which way votes will go in the second presidential round.

As with 2007, the results of the second presidential election should indicate how East Timor’s plethora of political parties will align following the June 29 parliamentary elections. It is widely expected that either CNRT or Fretilin will need to form a coalition with smaller parties to form government. Whoever wins, though, will face all of the above issues.

Unlike 2007, political leaders have agreed to rein in their support for gangs, so it is hoped this year’s elections will be peaceful. Tougher anti-gang laws have also helped here. A relatively peaceful election process will, if it proceeds uninterrupted, constitute a critical step on the nation’s long path to stability and a more secure future. The real question will be, after the election, whether East Timor can now go it alone.

(published Sunday Herald-Sun, 4 March 2012, p 68)

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