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East Timor’s next president, who will help steer the 15-year-old - nation through maritime boundary negotiations with Australia and a possible future revenue crunch, could be known as early as today, with counting under way.
While official results may not be released for a few days, observers yesterday predicted a likely winner would emerge overnight.
Monday’s election was the first since independence in 2002 conducted without the help of the UN, and poll observers reported the process ran smoothly despite long queues and some scattered campaign violence.
Heavy downpours had made many provincial roads virtually impassable for vehicles, forcing election officials to transport polling material on foot or horseback to more remote districts and tens of thousands of voters to walk kilometres to polling stations.
That didn’t seem to dampen participation, with the electoral commission reporting about 70 per cent of 743,159 registered voters turned out for the country’s fourth presidential poll.
Deakin University’s Damien Kingsbury, who led a 26-member Australian observer mission, said the atmosphere in villages he visited was overwhelmingly festive.
“There is a real sense that this is something people have died for, to have this opportunity, and now they have it they know they can change political outcomes by exercising a capacity they historically never had,” he said.
At least 183,000 people died from fighting, disease and starvation as a result of Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of the poor country of 1.26 million people first colonised by the Portuguese.
As polls closed at 3pm former resistance fighter Francisco Guterres, better known as Lu’Olo, was favoured to win his third tilt at the presidency thanks to the support of the country’s two biggest parties, Fretilin and Independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT Party. The two formed a national unity government in 2015.
But it was not clear whether he could secure the outright 50 per cent plus one majority required to avoid a second round run-off with Education Minister Antonio da Conceicao, his closest rival among a field of eight candidates, who is backed by the two main opposition parties.
Whoever does win faces a challenging tenure in a largely ceremonial position, though one that still holds a power of veto.
East Timor is running out of oil and gas — its main Bayu-Undan field will be exhausted within five years — and the government is spending down the $20.6 billion (US$15.9 billion) petroleum fund faster than it is developing the diversified economy that must replace it. The government also recently ripped up a treaty agreement with Australia, dividing 50-50 all future revenues from the still-undeveloped Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea, preferring instead to negotiate permanent maritime boundaries in the hope of a better deal.
For many voters the key issue was the country’s slow rate of development, amid growing concern that the sovereign wealth fund that finances 90 per cent of the country’s annual budget will be exhausted before a new, non-oil economy has emerged.
Both leading candidates have promised to speed up development and create jobs to reduce the country’s 60 per cent unemployment rate.
Conceicao has also focused on wasteful government spending and promised to bring basic services — running water, roads, schools and health care — to tens of thousands of provincial East Timorese.
Carlos Angelo Lemos, a 52-year-old businessman who queued early at a Dili polling station, said development was still “very weak”.
“People have the right to know what the oil money is being used for,” he said. “Is the money being used for public interest or (interest) groups? We hope that there is no corruption.”
Gizela de Carvalho, a 37-year-old worker with a local women’s organisation, said she wanted to see the government “work harder to build a more equitable economic sector”.
“There are still many women living in distress, with no access to education and health,” she said.
“Our society is hoping the money from oil can be used in a fair and transparent manner for the benefit of the people.”
Like many, she supported the push for permanent maritime boundaries with Australia “to get a decent profit for our people”.
Lu’Olo was quoted at the weekend as saying there were now “better prospects” for an agreement on borders that could lead to the development of Greater Sunrise, and he was open to the possibility of the gas being processed offshore or in Darwin.
The unity government has long pushed for Greater Sunrise gas to be processed in East Timor while private joint venture partner Woodside Petroleum insists it would be too expensive. But he denied saying that, instead reiterating his support for the government’s position.
SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/PACNEWS
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