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East Timor presidential election tests old heroes Gusmao and Alkatiri

The Australian - March 20, 2017

Amanda Hodge East Timorese voters go to the polls today to elect their fourth president since Independence, in a contest shaping up as a referendum on whether the tiny nation is ready to move on from its freedom-struggle narrative and focus on the economic struggle ahead.

In its nearly 15 years of nationhood, East Timor's most valiant freedom fighters have become the ruling elite -­ a clique that outgoing President Taur Matan Ruak has accused of using "unanimity for power and privilege".

"Brother Xanana (Gusmao) takes care of Timor, while Brother (Mari Alkatiri) takes care of Oecussi (the enclave he controls in West Timor)," Mr Ruak said in a recent scathing analysis of how the two independence heroes' national unity government had centralised power.

The election is contested by eight candidates, though in reality it is a two-horse race. Francisco Guterres, a former freedom fighter better known as Lu Olo, is backed by Mr Alkatiri and Mr Gusmao, the country's most venerated resistance figures whose respective parties (Fretilin and National Congress for Timor Reconstruction, or CNRT) joined forces in 2015 to form a grand coalition government.

In his final rally last Friday election favourite Lu Olo promised voters he would "prioritise the economic and education sectors".

His closest rival is Education Minister Antonio da Conceicao. He is backed by the two main opposition parties: the Democratic Party (PD) -­ a former junior government partner elbowed out when Fretilin joined the CNRT in government -­ and the People's Liberation Party (PLP), a new outfit formed by Mr Rauk, who is tipped to run for the more powerful position of prime minister in July's general elections.

Mr da Conceicao has campaigned on the need to reprioritise spending, and invest in agriculture and manufacturing to prepare the country for the inevitable end of oil revenues, which make up 90 per cent of its annual budget.

At current spending rates the country's sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund will be exhausted before 2028, too soon for Timor to develop a sustainable, alternative non-oil economy.

The three-week campaign has seen some starkly contrasting narrative between the "resistance generation" and an emerging opposition that accuses it of wasting the oil-dependent country's dwindling revenues on two dubious megaprojects -­ a special economic zone in Oecussi, and a corridor of petroleum infrastructure along the southwest coast.

"A lot of the campaign rhetoric has focused around who did what during the resistance time and what that means today," says Niall Almond, an analyst with East Timor's policy think tank La'o Hamutuk.

The group has worked hard to highlight issues it believes should be foremost in voters' minds -­ the economy, accountability and the need to diversify the economy from the oil and gas sector.

"We're trying to raise these issues so that people don't just base their vote on the roles people played in the resistance," said Mr Almond. "It's pretty obvious to people, especially in the countryside, that they haven't seen much change in their lives. Whether that can override the deep sense of loyalty and shared experience of the Indonesian occupation, and the solidarity and respect people feel for their leaders is difficult to say."

At least 183,000 people died during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, a poor country of 1.2 million people previously colonised by the Portuguese.

Yet with 41.8 per cent of the population still living in poverty -­ many with little access to basic government services, East Timor faces a budget crunch. Asked during the campaign whether the country needed a new generation of leaders, Mr Gusmao, 70, responded with a resounding "no way".

"We are not a perfect state... it is very early," he said. "That is why you have to trust Lu-Olo to keep the country united."

Swinburne University East Timor expert Michael Leach said the election result would depend on whether Lu Olo can win an outright majority. If he does not, and faces a second round against Mr da Conceicao, "the real question is who the other six eliminated candidates will back", he said.

How well Mr da Conceicao does in the election could say much about East Timorese voter intentions in July, when the real power contest occurs.

Source: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/east-timor-presidential-election-tests-old-heroes-gusmao-and-alkatiri/news-story/2edb6ec57ccb5c4233c2b5183d665b4c?nk=1dae07f231e3eed8bcda9c2eaf56b2f1-1489959992.

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