Timor-Leste Heads to Polls

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Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta goes to the poll this Saturday with a battle on his hands, far from certain he’ll retain his position in a presidential election that will lay the groundwork for great change in the short history of this tiny nation.

Twelve candidates have entered the field. Other frontrunners include Francisco Guterres of Fretilin, former military chief Jose Maria de Vasconcelos – also known as Taur Matan Ruak – and Fernando de Araujo of the Democratic Party.

The shifting alliances will probably ensure that no candidate will win the mandatory 50 percent of the vote required for outright victory, meaning a run-off ballot between the top two candidates should be held next month.

Ramos-Horta’s reelection bid suffered a major setback recently, when he lost the support of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT Party, an acronym for the National Congress for Reconstruction of East Timor, who backed him in 2007.

In that election Guterres had won the initial vote, but his bid for the presidency stumbled once Gusmao opted for Ramos-Horta, re-establishing an alliance made famous during the 1980s and ’90s and the fight for independence from Indonesia.

CNRT General Secretary Dionisio Babo has said his party will throw its support behind Taur Matan Ruak – who plans to introduce compulsory military service – which came amid increasing friction between Ramos-Horta and Gusmao.

The Nobel Laureate has become a critic of the ruling CNTR in recent years, accusing its members of corruption and nepotism, but he has praised Ruak for displaying a much needed democratic maturity that served East Timor well following the deadly unrest of 2006.

Violence again flared at the elections a year later, and again in 2008, amid assassination attempts on Ramos-Horta and Gusmao.

The initial unrest resulted in the return of 1,000 U.N. peace keepers headed by a further 400 Australian troops, and Ramos-Horta along with other political leaders are saying its time they left.

Many, particularly in business, fear the country will slide back into bloodshed once the country is left to its own devices. Still, the troops are expected to leave by the end of the year. In their place a series of bilateral police training agreements have been struck with Australia, Indonesia and Portugal.

A victory by Ramos-Horta or Ruak will be seen as a positive for the West, with Canberra and Washington enjoying solid relations with both men and hoping to keep China’s strategic expansion in check. One U.S. diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, out of Dili concluded that Ruak was favorably disposed towards developing military-to-military ties with the United States and Australia.

Previous Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had irritated Western powers by his friendlier stance to Beijing.

He was ousted in 2006.

In Timor-Leste, executive power is vested in the government formed by the prime minister when one party wins an outright majority of parliamentary seats. If not, the president can decide which party has the right to form a coalition.

This constitutional ruling allowed Ramos-Horta to block Fretilin from forming government in 2007, providing Gusmao and the CTRN with an opportunity to form a coalition government. That alliance is now over, and Ramos-Horta could find himself out in the cold come Saturday.

Legislature elections are due mid-June.

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