Lindsay Murdoch, Dili The front-runner to be elected East Timor's president at elections on Monday has offered new hope for a breakthrough with Australia in a bitter stand-off over $40 billion in oil and gas fields.
Francisco Guterres, known as Lu-Olo, told Fairfax Media there are now "better prospects" for an agreement on sea borders leading to an agreement to develop the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea.
An Australian parliamentary committee has been told that without billions of dollars in revenue from the fields, Australia's neighbour is likely to become an aid-dependent failed state.
Mr Guterres, a leading figure in the power-sharing Fretilin Party, left open the possibility of the gas being piped to an existing plant in Darwin or for a floating platform to extract it above the fields. Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's independence hero, has for years demanded that the gas be piped to a proposed $1.4 billion industrial complex on the country's remote southern coast, despite a consortium led by Woodside Petroleum saying that this approach was unviable and shelving the project.
"I can't guess what the outcome will be. Each side has a position. That is what we will take to the table," Mr Guterres said, referring to negotiations on a new sea border by a September deadline.
The comments are the most positive yet by an East Timorese leader on the stand-off, which has stirred strong nationalistic sentiments in a country famous for its long struggle for independence.
In January, East Timor dropped a spying case against Australia in the international court and issued a joint statement with Canberra pledging to negotiate the sea borders "in good faith".
Rebecca Strating, an expert on East Timor from Victoria's La Trobe University, told a parliamentary committee last week it is "very possible" East Timor could be the "architect of its own demise" as revenues from its existing oil and gas resources and a sovereign wealth fund are exhausted.
"There are elections this year. A change in government or a change in personalities might produce a government that is willing to think a little more laterally or flexibly around the interests in the Timor Sea," Dr Strating said.
"But since 2012 it seems to me that this pursuit of independence may actually create a failed state in Timor-Leste [East Timor]," she said.
East Timor, which has failed to diversify its income to manufacturing or agriculture, relies on oil and gas revenues for more than 90 per cent of its $2 billion-a-year budget.
"The next five years with new leadership is a critical time because money from currently used oil fields is mostly depleted," said Charles Scheiner of La'o Hamutuk, a Dili-based think-tank.
Presidential elections will be followed by general elections in July. Mr Guterres, a former guerrilla fighter, said he cannot see any of seven other candidates beating him for the presidency, predicting he will win enough votes to avoid a run-off election in April.
Mr Gusmao, the country's behind-the-scenes powerbroker, swung his support behind Mr Guterres and rejected a push for younger leaders to replace former resistance fighters who have dominated the country's politics since independence in 2002.
"Yes, there is some opinion that younger leaders should be elected. But no way," Mr Gusmao told reporters. "We are not a perfect state... it is very early. That is why you have to trust Lu-Olo to keep the country united," he said.
Antonio da Conceicao, the education minister form the Democratic Party, appears to be Mr Guterres' closest rival, but analysts say his best chance would be in a run-off.
Jose Ramos Horta, the country's respected former president, prime minister and Nobel laureate, decided in January not to contest the election, saying it is time for generational renewal.
Electioneering in Asia's youngest democracy has been largely violence-free but intense amid persistent poverty and claims of entrenched corruption.
Twenty-six observers have travelled from Australia to observe the vote, the country's first without United Nations support.
Damien Kingsbury from Melbourne's Deakin University, who is leading the delegation, said despite some technical issues he expects the voting will proceed without any major hiccups.
East Timor has been ruled since 2015 by a power-sharing executive made up of leaders of Mr Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and Fretilin. The two groups had been bitter rivals for years.
Clinton Fernandes, a Timorese expert from the University of New South Wales, said whoever Mr Gusmao endorses will win the elections.
"Voters see the cash liquidity flowing through the economy and crucially they trust Xanana," Professor Fernandes said. "He's lost weight and appears to be looking after his health which to me means he's probably intending to be a player well into his 80s."
Professor Fernandes said the person Mr Gusmao endorses for prime minister later in the year will have to have three qualities connection to the public, ruthlessness and magic.
"Xanana is very much an animist and appears to believe his destiny and that of his country are in the hands of the ancestors whose spirits influence the land," he said.
Experts have told a parliamentary inquiry that if the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field is not developed East Timor may become a failed state or aid dependent.
East Timor's decision to rip up a treaty with Australia on the carve up of future revenue from Greater Sunrise oil and gas reserve in the Timor Sea could make it an "architect of its own demise", experts have told a parliamentary inquiry.
In January, East Timor announced it wished to terminate the treaty which split future revenue 50-50 with Australia and put a 50-year moratorium on a permanent maritime boundary.
Greater Sunrise is estimated to hold nine trillion cubic feet of gas and 300 million barrels of condensate and liquefied petroleum gas worth about $53 billion.
Federal parliament's joint treaties committee is examining amendments to the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea so that it can terminate on April 10.
A hearing in Canberra on Tuesday was told a major factor in the decision to walk away from the treaty was East Timor's desire for a pipeline for processing resources on its shores, rather than a floating platform, as previously proposed by Woodside Petroleum, or a pipeline to Darwin.
La Trobe University lecturer Rebecca Strating said paradoxically East Timor's ambitions to secure its sovereignty and economic development could undermine its capacity to develop. She said there were some indications East Timor was "resource cursed".
"To go back to the idea of the architect of its own demise, it's very possible that it could be," she told the hearing. "This pursuit of independence may actually create a failed state in Timor Leste."
The hearing was told oil revenue made up 90 per cent of East Timor's budget and roughly 80 per cent of the country's national income was derived from oil.
Oil from the Bayu-Undan field in the joint petroleum development area will be depleted by about 2022 and East Timor's petroleum wealth fund could be dry by 2025-2028. "If there is no agreement on Greater Sunrise it will create an aid-dependent state," Dr Strating said.
University of Wollongong Professor Clive Schofield echoed that view. "To achieve anything better than a 50-50 split, to put the whole of Greater Sunrise on the Timorese side of the line, that's drawing a long bow," Prof Schofield said.
Earlier, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials told the hearing the treaty's demise would not impact on resource companies operating in the area.
Australia and East Timor governments are taking part in conciliation in The Hague over the ongoing maritime boundary dispute. Woodside has put on hold plans to develop Greater Sunrise until there is certainty over revenue sharing between the two countries.
East Timorese go to the polls on March 20 with a possible run-off on April 20.
An interview with the head of Timor-Leste's national human rights institution.
Khoo Ying Hooi Timor-Leste became a fully independent republic with a parliamentary form of government on May 20, 2002. On the human rights front, the Office of the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ/Provedoria dos Direitos Humanos e Justica) was established just two years later, in May 2004, drawing much admiration for this post-conflict small country.
The PDHJ is Timor-Leste's national human rights institution (NHRI). It is empowered to review complaints, conduct investigations, and forward recommendations to prevent or redress illegality or injustice to the competent organs. The PDHJ has a two-fold mandate in the areas of human rights and good governance. The office has achieved some notable progress in its own way. It had proudly been admitted as a full member in the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) and enjoys status "A" from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC).
Khoo Ying Hooi spoke with Dr. Silverio Pinto Baptista, the provedor for human rights and justice, to explore the role and function of the PDHJ in promoting and protecting human rights in Timor-Leste as well as its challenges with the national government. Dr. Baptista was first appointed by the National Parliament to the position of deputy ombudsman in 2005 and was then sworn into office as the provedor in 2014. During his student days, he participated in student organizations supporting Timor-Leste's independence. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Baptista worked for the Association for Rights (HAK) to provide legal assistance to Timorese captured by the Indonesian military.
Khoo Ying Hooi: What is your assessment of the PDHJ's role since its establishment in 2005?
Dr. Silverio Pinto Baptista: Our institution was established in 2005. But our law, which is our Statute, was approved by the Parliament and approved by our president in 2004, through Law No. 7/2004. After one year, the Parliament nominated the first provedor, and two deputies, who were sworn in the Parliament in July 2005. Of course, as a new institution back then, we faced a lot difficulties and challenges because there was only the provedor and his two deputies. In the first year, we received support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), from the United Nations (UN), and also from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). So, we spent around nine months to strengthen our institution, including recruiting our staff, and established our internal procedure.
In 2006, exactly on March 20, we opened our door to receive complaints from the public. Right after we opened our door to the public to receive complaints, our country faced a major political crisis. So, it was a very difficult time for us as a new institution, as we lacked staff, and lacked skill as well. To overcome that, we tried to organize with and work with the civil society and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Dili. And, we agreed to establish one joint network. We called it the Joint Monitoring Team.
In 2009, we tried to open our regional office because after three to four years, in our experience, we did not receive complaints from Oecusse region. Oecusse is an enclave. Now, we have four offices: the Main Office in Dili and the four Regional Offices in Oecusse, Maliana (to cover districts in the western part), Same (to cover districts in the southern part), and Baucau (to cover districts in the eastern part). Today, we have 95 staff.
As a NHRI, based on our Statute, we have two mandates: with one in the field of human rights and another one in the field of good governance. Before we changed our Organic Law, we had five national divisions in our main office, which are the divisions of human rights, good governance, public assistance, and administration and finance, including our regional offices. But, recently, our Organic Law has been changed from Law No. 25/2011 to our new Organic Law with Law 31 in 2016. So, now, we have six to seven national divisions, including our main office. Our structure here is both structural and functional; structural at the top level, but at the bottom level, functional.
Very often, NHRIs in Southeast Asia suffer from a lack of budget. How is the budget situation of the PDHJ?
Well, I can say that the budget continues to increase from year to year. But it also depends on our proposal and our lobby to the Parliament. We have to advocate and approach the government as well as the Parliament to [ask them to] give additional budget to us. We tried to manage the budget from the state budget, and we also receive support from UN agencies and from embassies based in Dili.
Since 2006, we have received support for the capacity-building project from the UNDP. We focused mainly on petitions at that time, because when we faced the political crisis in our country in 2006, there were a lot of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and activists stayed in the camp. So we worked with the civil society to continue monitoring the petitions. We shared information that we received from the IDPs with the government to attend to the needs for the IDPs. Now, we also receive support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the New Zealand Aid Program. We use the support to strengthen our regional offices.
How is the human rights situation in Timor Leste? What are the common human rights complaints that the PDHJ receives?
We continue to receive complaints from the public related to human rights abuses or related to maladministration. Mostly the complaints are related to abuses of power practiced by the enforcement officials such as our police. Sometimes, we also receive complaints about public servants, especially teachers. Sometimes, some of the teachers use force to beat the children. The parents send complaint letters to us. We also have land rights issues, such as forced evictions.
We do not, however, face much of an issue in term of the independence of the institution. But sometimes we do receive criticism from our colleagues from civil society. However, when we prepared our first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011, PDHJ and civil society prepared one report together under the section for National Institution.
Are there many cases of forced eviction?
Yes, [there is] still a high number and this especially happens in Oecusse. Last year, there was a big project in Oecusse. The authorities there took the land to use for the development, and there is no compensation. The community came to us, and filed complains to us. We sent our monitoring team to conduct monitoring. After that, we sent our report to the government, to the parliament. Now, the implementation of our recommendation is still ongoing.
Power of investigation is always a contentious issue for NHRIs. What is the situation like for the PDHJ?
Our tasks related to investigations are confidential. When we decide to open a case for investigation, our investigators have the duty to keep confidential [anything] related to these cases. After the investigation, based on our mandate, we send our report and recommendation to related government agencies that committed the human rights violations. After the investigation, we send our recommendations and reports for implementation.
How is the relationship between PDHJ and the Timor Leste government?
Before this, we had a department that we called the "Department for Follow-Up Recommendation." Now, we have the Official for Follow-Up Recommendation. As provided in our Statute, each government agency that receives our recommendations or reports, they have 60 days to implement the recommendations. After 60 days, they have to report back to us; such as what kind of steps they have taken to implement our recommendations. In the first month (30 days), we first send reminder letter before follow-up by a meeting. After the first meeting, we will send another reminder letter a week before the due date. And, after 60 days, if there's no response, then the final report will be sent to the Parliament. Every June, the PDHJ will need to present an annual report to the Parliament. So far, the government agencies have been responsive.
How is the PDHJ's relationship with civil society and the local NGOs? Are there any challenges?
Very good. Sometimes they criticize us as well. Very often, it is related to the human rights issues. Civil society and the NGOs want the PDHJ to act more. I can understand them, because my background is also from civil society. But, very often I try to explain that you have to make a difference or distinction between the modus operandi of civil society and the PDHJ. As a state institution, I want to make sure each recommendation we send to the state institutions will be followed up and not be put under the table.
Paulina Quintao Data from the Secretariat of Technical and Electoral Administration (STAE) showed lower rates of voter participation in this year's presidential election, with 214,337 of 743,150 registered voters not taking part.
Former Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta said he was concerned that many voters had decided not to take part.
He said part of the reason was the lack of information about the laws and the process of changing residency details. "I see that the percentage of [voter] participation has declined sharply, this is not good," he said.
He called on STAE and the political parties to provide civic education to communities so that they knew about the voting process and could plan ahead.
Dili resident Francisco Gusmao said he had no knowledge about the electoral laws and that he was required to change his residency details because in previous elections people could vote anywhere.
"Our rights have been denied by the law to participate in this democracy," he said.
He urged the competent bodies to consider the reality of people's lives when establishing laws and ensure communities were aware of their rights and had proper information, especially in regards to the documents needed in order to update their residency.
However, Minister for the Coordination of Administrative Affairs and Minister of State Administration Dionisio Babo said the low participation rates was not due to poor turnout at the polls in the sukus (villages), but because many people lived overseas or had died and were still registered on the list.
"Our election is not obligatory. Some people have individual reasons not to take part, [so] we should respect that [because] we cannot force everyone," he said.
However, in general he said the process had been run very well, particularly the counting of votes in the municipalities despite a number of challenges faced by teams on the ground, including poor road conditions and difficulties accessing voting centers in more remote areas.
He also thanked the Timorese people and authorities, especially the National Police of Timor-Leste and the country's defense force (F-FDTL), for ensuring security was maintained and the election went ahead successfully.
Eight candidates contested this year's election on March 20 and the final results will be announced by the Court of Appeal later this week.
Paulina Quintao President elect Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Guterres has congratulated the Timorese people for entrusting him with their votes for the 2017-2022 term.
"I am happy for this and congratulate everyone," he said at the Fretilin central office in Dili.
Lu-Olo pledged to stand by his campaign motto "A President for everyone" during his five-year mandate. "I will be a president for all Timorese people we are all Timorese and we should work together to develop our country," he said.
Lu-Olo was one of eight candidates contesting this year's presidential election, held on March 20. Lu-Olo received 57.63% of the vote, which is set to deliver him to the presidential palace.
Of the other seven candidates, Antonio da Conceicao won a 32.09% share, Jose Neves Sama Larua received 2.18%, Jose Luis Guterres 2.65%, Luis Tilman 2.15%, Antonio Maher Lopes 1.73%, Amorin Vieira 0.81% and Maria Angela Freitas 0.78%.
Lu-Olo ran in the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, but failed on both occasions to secure enough votes to take office.
Lu-Olo's candidacy was supported by the two major political parties: Fretilin (of which he is the president) and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), led by charismatic leader and Timor's first president after independence Xanana Gusmao.
Meanwhile, President of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) Alcino Barris said the results would be handed to the Court of Appeal to be formally verified once final counting is complete.
"People already know the provisional results [and] who is elected, but this election has established principals under the law, so that is why we must comply with the regulations to ensure a definitive result," he said.
He said CNE had received 230 complaints about the voting system and each of these would also need to be verified clearly.
He said the vote count had been done manually, starting from the voting centers to the municipalities, with the final count conducted by CNE commissioners and technical staff under the supervision of candidates' monitors, as well as national and international observers.
Meanwhile, human rights activist Jose Luis Oliveira called on the elected president to fulfill his promises to the people made during the campaign.
He also called for the elected president to uphold his responsibilities and negotiate with state entities to ensure that laws are properly enforced across the country.
A former guerrilla fighter vowed on Saturday to keep peace and unity as East Timor's new president, delivering a victory speech after the final tally showed he was on course to win the election.
Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres received 57 per cent of the vote in Monday's election, according to final figures announced late Friday. His main rival, Antonio da Conceicao, got 32 per cent. The remaining votes were divided among six other candidates.
The results released by the National Election Office still need to be vetted by the court of appeals before they are official.
While East Timor's president has a mostly ceremonial role, the prime minister heads the government.
East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that killed more than 170,000 people.
Indonesia's military and pro-Indonesian militias responded to the independence referendum with scorched earth attacks that devastated the East Timorese half of the island.
Lu-Olo received a visit from da Conceicao conceding the election soon after the final results were released on Friday. Da Conceicao, the current minister of education and social affairs, said he had accepted the result.
"He was a guerrilla fighter during our resistance time. He deserved the people's trust and I'll always respect him," da Conceica said of his rival.
Lu-Olo welcomed the concession and gave a victory speech at his residence. "I'll be president for all people in East Timor, even those who didn't vote for me," he told a crowd of supporters. "I'll keep fighting for peace and unity of our nation."
Lu-Olo led guerrilla attacks against occupying troops from the hills, rising quickly through the ranks. Eventually, he became the rebels' top commander.
It was his third attempt to win the presidency since 2007, when Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, secured an easy victory over him in a second-round vote. Lu-Olo lost to current President Taur Matan Ruak in the 2012 election, but this time he had strong support from resistance hero and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who remains influential in politics.
David Hutt Former guerrilla leader Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres is tipped to become the next president of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, after exit polls showed he won a clear majority at this week's polls.
Preliminary results show that Guterres received 57% of the vote, while analysts speculate that figure will be closer to 60% when the official result is announced.
If so, it will be the first time since 2002 that a Timorese presidential candidate has secured more than 50% of the vote in the first round, allowing Guterres to avoid a run-off vote against the second-ranking candidate, thought to be Education Minister Antonio de Conceicao, who ran on the Democratic Party's ticket. Guterres could be sworn in as early as May.
The election was held smoothly, an important development for a country plagued previously by election-related unrest and deep political divisions that have frequently erupted into violence. It was the first presidential election to take place since UN peacekeepers left in 2012.
Guterres, who failed in his 2012 presidential bid, is the leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), a party that led the armed struggle for independence against Indonesian occupation. The top political parties, including the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), all backed his bid for power.
Fretilin and the CNRT entered an informal "unity government" in 2015 after independence hero and CNRT founder, Xanana Gusmao, stepped down as prime minister as part of a political compromise.
Taur Matan Ruak, the outgoing president, took it upon himself last year to act as the de-facto opposition to the unity government. Ruak claims the power-sharing agreement has allowed the two main political parties to waste dwindling financial resources and over-centralize power.
He also made it known last year that he would be running for prime minister in the upcoming general election in July with the backing of the newly-formed People's Liberation Party (PLP), in what is expected to be a more charged electoral process.
In Timor Leste's parliamentary system, the president is supposed to serve a ceremonial role, though most previous post-independence presidents have overplayed their hand.
The opposed camps are expected to campaign on divergent policy platforms. While the CNRT and Fretilin will most likely not campaign together, they will both promise to implement more spending on development projects and consensus politics.
The opposition, a diverse group of political parties ranging from socialists to fiscal conservatives, will call for reduced spending, a crackdown on alleged corruption and economic diversification that lessens the young country's dependence on energy exports.
More than 90% of the state budget is currently derived from oil and gas revenues, most of which is stashed away in the country's sovereign wealth fund. Those coffers were at US$15.8 billion in January. However, there are credible fears that the fund could be depleted within a decade, while its main oil field, Bayu-Udan, is expected to dry up even sooner.
Much of Timor-Leste's economic woes have been caused by a long stand-off with neighboring Australia over the ownership of nearby underwater oil reserves.
Timor-Leste claims that many of its claimed oil fields were unfairly seized during the 24-year occupation by Indonesia, which allegedly cut deals with Australia to provide the southern nation with territory that lies well within Timor-Leste's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
After Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002, the government agreed to put aside the issue until 2057 and, instead, divided up the so-called "Timor Gap" with Australia. In the deal, the "Greater Sunrise" field, which is said to hold more than US$40 billion worth of oil and gas, or nearly 226 million barrels of oil and five trillion cubic feet of gas, was split 50:50 between Timor-Leste and Australia.
For the last five years, however, Timor-Leste has remained resolute that the oil from the field must be piped to a proposed US$1.4 billion refining complex on the country's southern coast, despite industry experts warning that the idea was economically and financially unviable, or not at all. The standoff has prevented any extraction from the field.
Timor-Leste also accused Australia of spying on its government officials to gain intelligence about its negotiating position, though the case was dropped in January.
Despite Guterres's incendiary comments in the past, including claims that allowing Australia to process fuel from the contested field was tantamount to ceding national sovereignty, his more recent statements towards Canberra have raised hopes that an agreement between the two neighbors could soon be reached.
On the hustings, Guterres said that Timor-Leste might be open to the possibility of allowing gas to be piped to an existing plant in Darwin, northern Australia, or on a floating station in waters between the two nations. He said that there are now "better prospects" for an agreement over the still contested maritime boundaries.
While the president is legally supposed to play a ceremonial role, this has seldom been the case in the past. And Guterres' comments have led to speculation that he could emerge as a key figure in leading negotiations with Australia over starting work in the Greater Sunrise field.
Without such an agreement Timor-Leste risks becoming a "failed state" as its sovereign wealth fund runs dry, according to some critical commentators. But if the rich field's development starts under Guterres' leadership, the future could soon brighten for Asia's youngest nation.
A Timorese lawyer who helped draft Timor Leste's constitution says the way this week's presidential election ran demonstrates the country is growing as a nation.
It was the first election conducted by the Timorese without any direct assistance from the international community.
Former guerilla fighter Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Guterres, from the political party Fretelin, will be Timor Leste's next president, according to preliminary results.
Mr Guterres secured more than 57 per cent of the vote, while his main rival, Antonio da Conceicao, received a 32 per cent share. A candidate needs more than 50 per cent to win in one round.
Aderito Soares, a former member of the Constituent Assembly, said the people of Timor Leste should be proud of their progress. "I think the Timorese really deserve a big congratulations for their maturity," he told the ABC's Pacific Beat.
"I think they showed a maturity to exercise their political rights by casting their votes on the 20th and it went very peacefully... I'm very happy to see that."
The election commission is expected to confirm the results, which will be verified by a court.
The former Portuguese colony was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975. A 24-year, often-violent, resistance movement achieved Timor Leste's independence in 2002 and many of its key figures still feature prominently in the running of the country.
Mr Soares, who is also the interim president of the New People's Liberation Party which backed Mr Conceicao, said it was exciting to see new political forces emerging in Timor Leste.
"Antonio did very well and it shows that there is a bit of a change in the mind of voters as well," he said.
"I think Antonio is a new generation from small political parties... I think in the previous election their Democratic Party only got 10 per cent, something like that, so I think it's a big jump."
The main concern among Timor Leste's 1.2 million people has been a failure to spread wealth from oil and gas revenues, with unemployment running at about 60 per cent.
Analysts said the challenge for any incoming government would be to wean the country away from reliance on oil money and diversify its sources of income into agriculture and manufacturing.
The energy sector accounted for about 60 per cent of GDP in 2014 and more than 90 per cent of government revenue. (ABC/Reuters)
Lindsay Murdoch, Dili A veteran guerrilla commander is heading for a decisive victory in East Timor's presidential elections and is expected to be sworn in as the country's next head of state in May.
Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres had received 57 per cent of the national vote with 90 per cent of votes counted in Monday's election.
Mr Guterres's campaign was backed by Fretilin, the party that led East Timor's revolutionary struggle to independence, and the country's behind-the-scenes powerbroker Xanana Gusmao.
His election is a vote of confidence in a government of national unity that was formed by Mr Gusmao in 2015 comprising Fretilin and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT).
Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Victoria's Swinburne University, said the strong support for Mr Guterres shows the "power-sharing combination of CNRT and Fretilin remains strongly competitive".
Despite that voting was not compulsory, hundreds of thousands of Timorese waited patiently in long queues in blistering heat to vote for a new president for a five-year term ahead of general elections in July.
The elections will be a key to the future of Asia's newest democracy amid concerns the half-island nation's oil and gas revenues are rapidly running dry.
Running second in the unofficial count with 32 per cent of the vote on Tuesday was Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao, the 53-year-old current education minister who says he represents a younger generation of Timorese demanding a change of leadership in the country where poverty remains endemic and there are growing concerns about corruption.
He also campaigned to the build the nation "from the grass roots" by ensuring the majority of people who live in rural areas have enough food, access to markets, schools, clinics, and water and sanitation.
Mr Guterres, 62, who had contested the presidency in three previous elections, needed to get more than 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off election in April. He received only 30 per cent of first round votes in 2007 and 2012 elections.
The president is largely a ceremonial post but the incumbent Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, also known as Taur Matan Ruak, has spoken out about corruption and insisted on revision of the government's budget.
Mr Vasconcelos is expected to contest the July vote as head of the newly formed People's Liberation Party (PLP). "President Ruak and his PLP have the best part of four months to make inroads," Professor Leach said.
East Timor has 744,613 registered voters in a population of 1.26 million.
Helen Davidson and Ben Doherty A former revolutionary hero is expected to become Timor-Leste's next president as voters head to the polls in the country's first election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012.
It is also the first time Timorese Australians have been allowed to cast absentee votes in Sydney and Darwin without having to travel back to Dili.
Monday's election comes at a trying time in the island nation's short history as an independent state, with oil and gas revenue to run dry within a decade and negotiations with Australia faltering over reserves in the Timor Sea.
Timor-Leste's 1.2 million people are widely expected to support the former independence fighter Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres.
Guterres is standing for the third time as a candidate for Fretilin formally the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor the leftwing nationalist party that began as a resistance movement fighting for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia.
Guterres has the support of the revered independence hero Xanana Gusmao, who has been a popular president and prime minister during the 15 years since Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia.
While the president has veto power over legislation the role is largely symbolic, and is seen as a unifying figure for the country. Elections for the unicameral parliament and its prime minister will be held later this year.
Timor-Leste's presidential elections are run on a direct election system. If no candidate in the first round, held on Monday, attracts more than 50% of the vote, a second round, contested only by the two highest vote-getters, is held. The second round, if needed, will be held on 20 April this year.
Guterres who has lost twice in run-off votes has told media he believes he has the numbers to win the first round.
But Jose Ramos-Horta, the country's former president and prime minister, told the Guardian he would not be surprised if voters would have to return to the polls in April to decide between Guterres and the Democratic party candidate, Antonio Conceicao.
The country's leadership has largely been held by high-profile resistance leaders, including Gusmao, Ramos-Horta, who served as both president and prime minister, the departing president Taur Matan Ruak and the former prime minister Mari Alkatiri.
But Ramos-Horta said a younger generation of leaders was emerging and it was a "cliche" that veterans of the independence struggle dominated parliament.
He said only Alkatiri and Gusmao were still active, and cited the current prime minister, Rui Araujo, as a "highly respected, honest, and competent" leader who was not part of the old guard.
Timor-Leste has been widely praised as a standout democracy in south-east Asia but it faces deep economic challenges in the near future. It is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas reserves, and the main Bayu Undan gas fields are expected to run out within the next decade.
A dispute with Australia over the revenue split from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea has been bitter, with Australia found to have spied on Timorese diplomats during negotiations. In January Timor-Leste dropped its spying case against Australia as a sign of "good faith" and withdrew from the treaty which determined the revenue divide.
Guterres has suggested he would be more open to some aspects of the negotiation than Gusmao, Fairfax Media reported on Monday.
Ramos-Horta told the Guardian the relationship between the two countries was strong and stable, and they were determined to reach a "mutually satisfactory" solution by the end of the year.
He called for a future government to put restrictions on non-essential imports and "at some point" put controls on currency exports to stop money being "siphoned off the country by corrupt Timorese and foreign business".
"In coming years the new government has to slow down on public expenditure and this can be achieved through ending waste and corruption," he said. "It can slow down on some major infrastructure development. But it must continue to invest in education, health, nutrition, agriculture."
Timor-Leste has been warned to crack down on corruption and has faced criticism for its attempts to place controls on media. Two Timorese journalists were charged with "slanderous denunciation" for a report on Araujo last year, and the International Federation of Journalists has campaigned against proposed restrictive laws.
Ramos-Horta dismissed claims of a media crackdown as "nonsense". "In 15 years there hasn't been a single newspaper or radio closed down by the government," he said.
"Not a single journalist in jail in spite of so many falsehoods printed by the media. Journalists have the right to partake information with the public but I also believe that individuals, private or public have the right to recourse to courts to clear their names."
Ramos-Horta also disputed polling done by the Asia Foundation, which found increasing discontent among the population. In the two years to 2016 the proportion of people who believed the country was going in the right direction dropped from 74% to 58%. For people under 25 it dropped from 80% to 50%.
In 2012 the two main political parties formed a coalition, which prompted concern about a lack of parliamentary scrutiny, and in 2006 a political crisis resulted in violence, deaths and coup attempts.
Despite these concerns, Ramos-Horta said there was "no risk" of Timor-Leste turning its back on democracy. He said it had a strong civil society and media. "Our people are too independent-minded and opinionated to be silenced."
Ramos-Horta has not endorsed a candidate. Nor has he ruled out a return to politics, telling the Guardian he would "consider any role, formal or informal as I have done in recent years in helping the government [or] president, which means helping the country."
Felicity James The people of Timor-Leste head to the polls today to elect a new president, with former guerrilla fighter Francisco "Lu'Olo" Guterres widely tipped to out-poll seven other candidates.
In Darwin, dual Timorese-Australian citizen Jose Luis Valadares is voting in Timor-Leste's elections for the first time since the country's independence referendum in 1999, which ended more than two decades of Indonesian rule.
"That was hard, to win that right," he said. "I will be proud and happy to use my right to vote."
"As a figurehead of state, [the President] can still can speak for the people - if the people come to him and say 'look, we don't have water, we don't have roads or good health'," Mr Valadares said.
Timor-Leste's electoral commission is running a voting trial in Darwin and Sydney, allowing some Timorese-Australians a chance to vote in the country's elections without travelling back to Dili.
Fretilin's Lu'Olo said he was confident about winning more than 50 per cent of the vote, which would eliminate the need for a second round election in April. "He's very, very positive, from the numbers participating in the rallies," Lu'Olo's spokesman Harold Moucho told the ABC.
Lu'Olo has been endorsed by former prime minister and resistance leader Xanana Gusmao from CNRT, which is part of a "government of national unity" coalition with Fretilin.
In Dili, politics professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University is heading Australia's election observer mission and said there had been some initial teething problems.
He said there had been delays in passing election-related legislation through Parliament, which held up financing for the election process. "That's led to some technical problems, but we do expect that the elections will run quite smoothly," he said.
But Mr Kingsbury said the country had come a long way since the 1999 referendum, with a minimal level of assistance needed from the international community compared with elections in 2012 and 2007.
Lu'Olo is on Timor-Leste's Maritime Council, which is supervising maritime boundary negotiations with Australia, and has an open mind about the discussions, according to his spokesman.
"His position is the same as the Government position," Mr Moucho said. "But during negotiations anything can happen."
Mr Gusmao, currently the Planning and Strategic Investment Minister, has previously insisted gas from the undeveloped Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea be processed by Timor-Leste onshore, rather than via a floating platform or pipeline to Darwin.
The new president will replace Taur Matan Ruak, who is expected to run in the July parliamentary elections with the newly formed People's Liberation Party.
Local NGO La'o Hamatuk said in the lead-up to that election, issues of government transparency and how to expand the country's economy beyond oil and gas revenue would be up for debate.
By 2022 Timor-Leste will receive no new revenue from oil and gas, according to La'o Hamatuk, and the country's $US16 billion sovereign wealth fund will be half its current size.
"Timor-Leste needs to move away from oil and gas dependency," La'o Hamatuk researcher Charlie Scheiner said. "It needs to focus on agriculture, on sustainable tourism, on manufacturing products that are used locally to substitute for imports."
Politics professor Michael Leach from Swinburne University said the Timor-Leste Government's dominant approach had been to fund "mega projects".
These include the $US1.4 billion Tasi Mane petroleum infrastructure project and the $US1.36 billion Special Economic Zone (ZEESM). "Those two projects have been receiving much of the budget funding and that's sometimes been a controversial approach," Mr Leach said.
Egas Alves and his 20-year-old daughter Deci will also be voting from Darwin. "It's so good now that they've involved Timorese outside of Timor-Leste, because it's expensive to go back and vote," Ms Alves said.
Mr Alves said he arrived in Darwin with his family in December 1994, after working to get information to Xanana Gusmao and guerrillas in Timor-Leste's mountains.
For Mr Alves, security should remain the country's priority. "I think the country's now heading in the right direction, because the two major parties, Fretilin and CNRT join together so they can together develop the country," he said.
Mr Valadares said the Australian voting trial should have included Timorese communities in Melbourne, Perth and other jurisdictions. "They have been denied this time, so I hope next time they will be able to do it."
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.
Lindsay Murdoch, Dili They rode ponies, steered boats and walked for kilometres along cloud-shrouded mountain paths to vote in East Timor's presidential election on Monday.
The vote will be a key to the future of Asia's newest democracy amid concerns the half-island nation's oil and gas revenues are rapidly running dry.
"I'm really happy... most of the eight candidates are good men who could help my country," said Mateus Lucas, a 49-year-old father of three, who voted at a school in Dili.
"I voted amid fear in 1999 but now I am free to vote for whoever I like," he said, referring to a violence-hit United Nations referendum where Timorese voted to break away from Indonesia.
The election is the first that East Timor has organised without the help from the UN. Officials had to overcome huge logistical problems reaching remote polling stations without UN helicopters to ferry ballot boxes. Voting queues were long in most areas, although voting is not compulsory.
Damien Kingsbury from Victoria's Deakin University, who is leading a delegation of 26 Australian poll observers, said East Timorese embrace elections "almost as a sacred duty".
"Out in the villages you see people enthusiastically queuing up to vote and then they go back to their villages to celebrate the vote which they turn [into] a day of festival," he said.
Some localised violence marred campaigning but overall it was largely violence-free.
The frontrunner likely to be elected president ahead of general elections in July is Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, a former guerrilla fighter backed by Fretilin, the party that led the independence struggle.
If there is an upset it will come from younger voters supporting Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao, the current education minister.
"The young generation also participated in the struggle for independence. I stand for them. They are looking to establish their own identities," Mr da Conceicao told Fairfax Media on the eve of the vote. "They see themselves as second-class citizens now."
Mr da Conceicao's campaign centred on a pledge to build the nation "from the grass roots" by ensuring the majority of people who live in rural areas have enough food, access to markets, schools, clinics and water and sanitation.
East Timor remains one of Asia's poorest nations, where corruption and lack of transparency in government have emerged as key issues. More than 90 per cent of the country's budget comes from oil and gas revenues.
Mr da Conceicao, a former figure in East Timor's anti-Indonesian resistance, said a priority for his country is to secure its boundaries, including in negotiations with Australia over $40 billion in oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.
Revenues from East Timor's Bayu-Undan oil and gas field in the Timor Sea is set to dry up in the next five years, intensifying pressure to resolve the country's bitter stand-off with Australia over the undeveloped Greater Sunrise field.
Mr da Conceicao said he is worried the vote will be manipulated. "If it is not a fair process then I will protest," he said.
Mr da Conceicao's best chance to win will be if there is a run-off election in April. The president is elected by an absolute majority to serve a five-year term via a two-round system.
The position is largely ceremonial but the incumbent, Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak, has spoken out about corruption and insisted on revision of the government's budget.
Mr Vasconcelos is expected to contest the July general elections for the newly formed People's Liberation Party (PLP), aiming to take the even more powerful position of prime minister.
But analysts say revolutionary hero Xanana Gusmao remains the country's most influential figure and whoever he backs for the prime ministership is likely to win.
The prime minister is appointed through a vote of the country's 65 members of parliament. East Timor has 744,613 registered voters in a population of 1.26 million.
In an interview with Fairfax Media on Saturday, Mr Guterres said there are now "better prospects" for Australia and East Timor to negotiate sea borders that could lead to the development of the Greater Sunrise field. He also left open the possibility of gas from the field being extracted from a floating platform or piped to an existing refinery in Darwin.
But Mr Guterres' office issued a statement several hours later saying he supports only the option for the gas to be piped to a proposed $US1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) industrial complex on East Timor's remote southern coast.
Alexandre Assis, Dili East Timorese flocked to political rallies on the final day of campaigning ahead of Monday's presidential election, as Asia's youngest democracy grapples with persistent poverty and corruption at a time when oil revenues are rapidly running dry.
This year's presidential poll and parliamentary elections in July come as concerns mount over the failure to use wealth generated by oil and gas sales to support development and create jobs.
"The next five years with new leadership is a critical time because money from the currently used oil fields is mostly depleted," said Charles Scheiner of La'o Hamutuk, a Dili-based think-tank.
The challenge for any incoming government would be to wean the nation of 1.2 million people off oil and diversify its sources of income into agriculture and manufacturing, he said.
The energy sector accounted for around 60 percent of GDP in 2014 and more than 90 percent of government revenue.
Monday's election, the fourth since independence in 2002, is being contested by eight candidates.
Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, backed by the party that led the independence struggle, Fretilin, is a favorite to win the election. His chances were further enhanced by the endorsement of resistance hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party, said Michael Leach of Australia's Swinburne University.
Police on Friday were keeping an eye on possible unrest as candidates held rallies around Dili.
Supporters of Guterres in convoys of trucks chanted "Viva Lu Olo, Viva Fretilin, Viva CNRT" on their way to a rally about 15 km (9 miles) from the capital in Tasitolu.
"If I am later chosen to be president of East Timor, I will prioritize the economic and education sectors, to support the welfare of the people," Guterres said while campaigning.
Another leading candidate is Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao. The education minister has called for "peaceful politics" in a country that has suffered communal violence. He has the backing his own party as well as the newly formed People's Liberation Party (PLP) of the incumbent president Jose Maria de Vasconcelos.
The president plays a largely ceremonial role, but it is an important post for underpinning unity, particularly with unemployment running at around 60 percent.
Vasconcelos, also know by his former guerrilla nickname "Taur Matan Ruak" (two sharp eyes), is expected to run for the more powerful prime minister's post in the July elections.
The new government will inherit a looming budget crunch as its main source of revenue, the Bayu-Udan field, operated by ConocoPhillips, is set to dry up in the next five years. That will put pressure on the government to resolve disputes with Australia that are holding back the development of a potential new source of revenue, the Greater Sunrise field.
The field is estimated to hold 5.1 trillion cubic feet of gas and 226 million barrels of condensates, which have been estimated to be worth $40 billion.
The former Portuguese colony was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. A 24-year resistance movement achieved independence in 2002 and many of its key figures still feature prominently in the running of the country.
Michael Leach Election year arrives again in Dili, with the presidential campaign starting today and culminating in a national vote on 20 March.
While the president has a formal role in the formation of government, and holds a partial veto over legislation, executive power lies overwhelmingly with the prime minister and cabinet, making the 8 July parliamentary elections the more important of the two votes. The president's position is nonetheless highly esteemed, and is backed by a direct popular mandate that brings much symbolic power to the incumbent to use as a "bully pulpit."
This round of elections will test the new government formed in extraordinary circumstances in early 2015, when the former independence movement leader Xanana Gusmao handed over the prime ministership to an opposition Fretilin figure, Rui Araujo. Though best seen as a power-sharing executive rather than a formal government of national unity, this "grand coalition" between Timor-Leste's two largest parties the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, and Fretilin was a remarkable development, given the bitter tensions between the parties as recently as 2012. Gusmao's CNRT retained powerful coordinating portfolios and Fretilin took other key ministries, including foreign affairs. For his part, Gusmao moved to the Ministry of Planning and Strategic Investment, keeping control of the major infrastructure spending that underpins the government's often-controversial development strategy.
Described by a senior CNRT minister as a transition from "belligerent democracy to consensus democracy," this powerful combination sidelined CNRT's former allies, Partido Democratico, the third-largest party. PD nonetheless retained its ministries beyond 2015, reducing its ability to act as an effective opposition. This left president Jose Maria Vasconcelos (better known by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak) as the closest thing to an effective opposition. Ruak didn't shrink from this role, attacking the new government over accountability issues in early 2016, and vetoing the initial version of its budget. Gusmao and Ruak's relationship appears not to have recovered from this episode.
In general, grand coalitions are good at promoting stability and reducing political conflict, but weaker on providing adequate parliamentary oversight and effective opposition. To fill this vacuum, former anti-corruption commissioner Aderito Soares formed a new political party, the People's Liberation Party, or PLP, in late 2015. Ruak will not recontest the presidency this year, and is widely expected to enter the parliamentary race with the PLP once he is no longer president.
The parliamentary elections in July will feature around twenty-five parties and coalitions, but the presidential field looks surprisingly uncompetitive, despite the nomination of eight candidates. The main contender is Fretilin's candidate, the former guerrilla commander and twenty-four-year veteran of the Falintil military resistance, Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, who is running for the third time after twice being runner-up (to Jose Ramos Horta in 2007 and Ruak in 2012). Lu Olo's chance of success received a massive boost in January with a previously unthinkable endorsement by Xanana Gusmao. While expressed as a personal opinion rather than a formal CNRT position, Gusmao's authority is such that the party will not formally support another candidate. Both previous presidents received Gusmao's support.
Given the bitter rivalry between the two parties up to 2012, Gusmao's endorsement of Lu Olo also suggests that they intend their power-sharing arrangement to continue. Meanwhile, despite considerable expectations that he might enter the fray again this year with the support of PLP, former president Jose Ramos-Horta withdrew from contention shortly after Gusmao's announcement, citing the need for the next generation to take on the responsibility.
The lack of a high-profile independent alternative to Lu Olo means this may be the first presidential election since 2002 not to go to a runoff election in April. If Lu Olo is successful, it will be a first in another respect: the East Timorese people have previously chosen political independents as president.
While all signs point to a Lu Olo presidency, nothing is certain in politics, and among the remaining candidates, the next most competitive candidate appears to be the PD's recently elected secretary-general, and education minister Antonio da Conceicao. While da Conceicao will enjoy endorsement from PD and a smaller party, KHUNTO, his potential support may be somewhat diluted by a former deputy commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Jose Neves. Once a leader of the clandestine resistance movement RENETIL, he will draw on a similar pool of support to da Conceicao and may divide the PD vote.
Importantly, the PLP decided this week to recommend a conscience vote by its supporters in the presidential election, and to focus its energies on the parliamentary poll. Privately, though, PLP figures expect their supporters will fall behind da Conceicao or Neves. Other candidates likely to poll more than a few percent include former diplomatic resistance figure and one-time foreign minister, Frente-Mudanca's Luis "Lugu" Guterres, who leads the fourth party in parliament; and the Socialist Party of Timor's Antonio Maher Lopes. In the relatively improbable but not impossible event that the remaining candidates are able to deny Lu Olo an outright majority in the first round, PLP endorsement may prove an important factor in the runoff.
Despite being in the box seat for the presidency in 2017, the implications for Fretilin are not all positive. In a country where military resistance credentials retain great political legitimacy, Lu Olo is a powerful campaign asset for Fretilin. Assuming the presidency on 20 May will severely restrict his ability to campaign in the all-important parliamentary elections.
For CNRT, the negatives are perhaps more obvious. The party's failure to produce an alternative prime ministerial or presidential candidate, given that Gusmao himself presently desires neither, highlights its overwhelming dependence on his charismatic leadership. Though Gusmao commands great loyalty among CNRT members, the lack of a candidate is potentially demoralising to the rank and file. The key question of whether Fretilin's candidate will receive the support of those voters is far from resolved. PLP itself has missed an opportunity to test its support in the field, though it remains confident it can make an impact in July.
The key issues in Timor-Leste's last election campaign, in 2012, were political stability, veterans' issues and development policies. These are likely to be revisited this year, with the notable addition of the maritime boundary dispute with Australia, which unites CNRT and Fretilin. With clear implications for Timor-Leste's future revenue and its development prospects, that dispute invokes issues of sovereignty, stirring strong popular nationalist sentiments that resonate with the long struggle for self-determination. For its part, PLP has already developed a strong critique of the government's focus on "megaprojects," and has also raised allegations of patrimonialism. Both of these issues have the potential to resonate in the electorate.
Nonetheless, the present government's success in maintaining political stability and reducing political conflict within Timor-Leste's small elite will undoubtedly see CNRT and Fretilin remain highly competitive. Xanana Gusmao's popularity remains a key factor, and Fretilin's traditional support base in the eastern districts has remained a stronghold for the historical party. The PLP will likely attempt to distinguish itself from the government by focusing on living standards for the majority rather than megaproject-led development, and also on issues of financial transparency and sustainability. The clash of these two visions of post-independence government will make the 2017 parliamentary election worth following closely, regardless of who becomes president.
Felicity James East Timor's electoral commission is giving some Timorese Australians the chance to vote in the country's upcoming elections for the first time since independence.
Citizens living in Darwin and Sydney will be part of the trial, which allows them to vote without flying home.
In 1975, Darwin resident Dulcie Munn fled the country, also known as Timor-Leste, and has not voted since its independence referendum in August 1999.
"That's 18 years ago," she said. "To be able to participate again this time, casting our vote for the future of our nation Timor-Leste, is quite important."
Ms Munn said the voting trial should be expanded to other Australian jurisdictions.
"A lot of Timorese in Melbourne, Queensland and Western Australia are quite sad and actually a little bit upset that they can't take part in the voting," she said. "To travel to Timor-Leste, it's a bit impossible for some due to commitments at work and expenses."
National Electoral Commission of East Timor president Alcino de Araujo Baris has been in Australia this week meeting with community members and explain the registration process. "The election systems in Timor-Leste and Australia are very different," he said.
The country's presidential election will be held on March 20, with a potential second round of voting in April, before the parliamentary election in July.
If the Australian voting trial is successful, East Timor consul general in the Northern Territory Francisco Jose Filipe said it would be expanded for future elections.
"It will be a nightmare to gather everyone together from state to state and financially it's going to be a huge thing," he said. "But we cannot deny the Timorese the right to vote for the president or the government they want to see in the country."
He estimated there were more than 30,000 Timorese in Australia eligible to vote and said so far about 800 people had registered in Darwin and Sydney. Voting is not compulsory in East Timor and the country allows multiple citizenships.
"This is the first time that Timorese stand on his own feet and organise this election," he said. "I think the national commission for the election should be complimented on that."
Ms Munn said she would be voting for a presidential candidate that demonstrated honesty, commitment and respect for Timorese people and the country's history.
"Being Timorese, living abroad and looking from outside, it's quite sad, because we all fought the diplomatic and armed and underground forces together. To see corruption coming in at this stage, it's quite disappointing."
International observers, including from the European Union, Portuguese-speaking countries and Australia, have been invited to watch and analyse the election process in East Timor.
Mr Jose Filipe said the Northern Territory Electoral Commission had also offered to assist with the Australian trial. "We had meetings with the electoral commission here in Australia, they're going to support us on the day," he said.
Thomas Ora, Dili Timor-Leste's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Environment has launched a joint effort to tackle coastal abrasion by restoring about twelve hectares of mangroves which were damaged by El-Nino or cut down for firewood.
Dozens of government officials, environmental activists and church representatives were present at a recent planting of mangroves in Hera village, part of Dili district, one of the country's largest mangrove areas.
Joao Carlos Soares, director-general for the environment department at the ministry, said that the government was aware of the urgent need to look after the country's coast.
"If we do not conserve now, Timor-Leste's mangroves will disappear and our coastal areas will face a natural disaster," he told ucanews.com.
He said that in 2017 Timor-Leste will receive US$7.8 million from international environmental groups channeled through the United Nations Development Program for the rehabilitation of mangroves, mostly on the country's northern coast.
However, Divine Word Father Kornelis Key, an environmental activist and parish priest of St. Tiago Church in Hera, not far from the restoration site, said that the government must focus on sustainable mangrove restoration, rather than just wasting money on temporary projects.
"The government must spend money on sustainability and maintenance," he said, adding that there were instances where government officials and non-governmental groups planted mangroves but never monitored their growth.
Nevertheless, he supported the program because it is in line with the church's mission, particularly Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato si - a call to care for the environment - published in May 2015.
"What we want is that they monitor what they have planted, not just abandon them," said Father Key, adding that he has also told people to stop cutting mangroves.
Antonio Marcos da Silva, the Hera village chief, said that there should be a synchronized effort between the government and the people. "People are not aware that cutting mangroves will destroy the ecosystem," he said.
Elidio Ximenes, chairman of Flora and Fauna Conservation, said that the group has prepared 12,000 mangrove seedlings that will be planted on Timor-Leste's coasts, including near Hera village. "We are also studying the possibility of using mangrove fruit as food or medicine," he said.
About 1,200 mangroves have been planted in Hera and other areas will follow.
Agus Dwi Jatmoko, director of Pertamina International Timor, a subsidiary of Indonesia's oil and gas company, Pertamina, who participated in the mangrove restoration, said that the company has planted 1,500 mangrove trees in Hera.
"The mangrove has an extraordinary function because it becomes the center of a new ecosystem and helps populations of small fish," he said.
Paulina Quintao Clinical Director at the National Hospital of Guido Valadares Dr Flavio Brandao said that the number of kidney patients was continuing to increase each year due to problems accessing clean, filtered water across the country.
He said kidney disease was a public health issue that needed the attention of all relevant institutions to reduce the numbers. He said clean water supply systems across the country were unorganized and may be responsible for bringing various diseases to communities.
"Most of the population does not have access to filtered water especially in the mountains," he said, adding that sometimes people just drank the water directly without boiling or removing other impurities.
He said consuming unfiltered water that was not boiled properly could lead to many kidney problems.
To combat the disease, he said communities needed access to clean water that had been properly filtered and was free from bacteria and other contaminants.
Currently there are several patients receiving blood transfusions at the National Hospital to treat kidney problems, he said. The National Hospital has seven blood transfusion machines and patients are treated according to the schedule.
National Director for Hospital Support Horacio Sarmento said the majority overseas medical transfers were kidney patients as the national hospital lacked the capacity to provide treatment.
"We have already installed a hemodialysis machine at the National Hospital, but not at the referral hospitals yet because it is sensitive machine and needs [good] quality water," he said.
He said the government had an agreement in place with four large hospitals in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to treat cases that the National Hospital was unable to.
According to Health Ministry data, 283 patients were transferred overseas for treatment in 2016. Of that number, 97% have since returned in a good condition, while 3% died.
Venidora Oliveira National Member of Parliament has raised strong suspicions over the selection process of new students at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL) as some students with low grades are being selected while those with higher grades are not.
MP Osorio Florindo said that according to the criteria the cut-off for admission to study at UNTL in the Medical faculty was a grade of 37, but students with this grade were still being selected ahead of those with grades of 41 and 42.
"Many students fail even though they have a high grade and they have high expectations of studying at UNTL," he told National Parliament.
He said the selection process from testing until the final decision came under the Ministry of Education and therefore called on the minister to publicly explain why selection was not based on the determined criteria.
In response to the issue, Minister of Education Antonio da Conceicao explained that selection was based on a set of three criteria: the test, determined grade and 10% quota.
He said the 10% quota helped ensure that students from vulnerable families and children of independence fighters were given priority. "The 10% criteria was set by the Ministry of Education," he said.
He said many students failed the selection process for admission to the medical faculty due to the policy of having a balanced representation from all municipalities.
For example, he said students from Dili were well represented, but students with low grades that were from municipalities should also be given a chance.
Paulina Quintao The government through the Health Ministry has allocated funding to establish a special mental health clinic, with an appropriate site now in the process of being identified.
General Director of the National Hospital Jose Antonio said he was not aware of the total budget for the project, but appreciated the government's initiative as the facility was much needed. He said the design and BOQ had now been completed, but construction had yet to get underway.
Up until now, mental health patients usually always present to the public emergency room, but he hoped that once the clinic was established there would be a separate service.
Although there is currently no specialized clinic in Timor-Leste, he said the National Hospital continues to work with civil society, including Psychosocial Recovery and Development In East Timor (PRADET) and Sao Joao de Deus, a treatment center in Laclubar, to support mental health patients.
Data from the Ministry of Health showed that in 2015 there were 1948 people registered as suffering from a mental illness, comprising 1059 female and 889 male patients.
Member of Commission F (responsible for health, education, culture, veteran affairs and gender equality) Leonel Marcal said it was necessary to have a separate facility as the statistics were high and mental health patients also had a right to access treatment.
"Those people do not often get proper treatment in the family, so the state has an obligation to take care and provide good and proper treatment for them," he said.
He said mental health was an issue for all of society, not just the health sector and that some patients were able to recover with proper treatment and family support.
Paulina Quintao Deputy Ministry of Health Ana Isabel Soares said improving the professional ethics and attitude of medical personnel remains a significant challenge for the Ministry of Health, particularly in terms of providing quality treatment.
She said communities continued to have concerns over the insensitive language used by the health personnel when treating patients.
The Ministry has made efforts to provide training to health personnel on their ethical code of conduct, but not all were willing to adopt the principles in their work and it also took time to change attitudes.
"I can buy the doctor's time, but I cannot buy their affection to give to patients because it is coming from people's heart," said Soares. "We continue to provide training and remind health personnel to consider the patient as a member of their own family."
She called on health personnel, particularly specialists, to set a good example to new doctors and help them to increase their knowledge.
She also asked the public not only to see the shortcomings of health personnel, but also to value successful work they did in saving people's lives.
The supervisor of Timor-Leste Midwives Association (APTL), Lidia Gomes, said the majority of complaints received by the association concerned the level of assistance provided to pregnant women, especially during childbirth.
She said some of the problems occurred due to the poor standard of the health system, including limited human resources as every health center only has one midwife. This means that midwives must often take on double the workload when it comes to treating pregnant women, providing vaccinations and assisting during childbirth.
"Our plan is to do some refresher training on the code of ethics to help midwives improve their job performance when treating pregnant women," she said. Gomes recognized that some of the problems occurred because midwives were tired and over worked, although this did apply to all.
There are currently 782 midwives in Timor-Leste, providing health care in public and private medical facilities.
Paulina Quintao Private secondary schools are refusing to accept young mothers wanting to continue their studies after giving birth as there is still no legal basis.
The Director of Rede Feto, Dinorah Granadeiro, said unofficially the Ministry of Education had already instructed public schools to accept those students wanting to continue their studies, but private schools did not recognize informal directives.
She described the government's decision not to introduce proper regulations requiring private schools to also accept drop-out students as discriminatory.
"When we receive complaints from girls who study in private schools, we meet with the school directors, but they say that there is no law yet that requires them to implement it," she said. "They cannot accept (the students) because internal regulations do not permit it."
However, she said women's organizations continued to advocate at the highest level, adding that the constitution guaranteed everyone's right to access education.
In 2009, the Committee for the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recommended that Timor-Leste implement a formal policy making it mandatory for all public and private schools to accept female students wanting to re-enrol after giving birth, but the government has still not done so.
In 2015, Timor-Leste delivered its second periodic report to the CEDAW committee in Geneva, with the committee again recommending the government fast-track the policy in order to ensure the rights of women in accessing education.
The CEDAW committee also called on Timor-Leste to strengthen the health assistance provided to women and children, as well as improve access to justice for the victims of gender-based violence and increase the number of women in school and their participation across all sectors.
"We have the law, but often the cases are pending and the penalty provided to domestic violence perpetrators is light, therefore the committee thinks that this gives space for perpetrators to commit these crime because the process is delayed and there are no immediate sanctions imposed on them," said Granadeiro.
Eighteen-year-old student Noy (not her real name) from Covalima municipality said she did return to school until after she gave birth.
After her family approached the school director, she said she was allowed to make up assessments that she missed while pregnant and sit the national exam.
As she was unable to attend school during her pregnancy, Noy said she copied school work from friends and studied at home in order to keep up. "I have good luck, but others do not, because I have the full support of my family and my husband," she said.
When her family and in-laws became aware of her pregnancy, they were concerned for the future of her and her husband, also then aged 18, and so agreed that they should both continue their studies.
When she returned to school to sit her exams, Noy said some friends made insulting comments towards her, but instead of being deterred she used this as motivation to continue her studies.
After this experience, she established a small advocacy group to encourage teachers and families to support young women to continue their schooling.
"I have a friend studying at a private school who fell pregnant and when she returned to school the school director did not permit her to attend the exam, so we met with the public school director to allow the student to sit the national exam," she said.
Noy went on to finish her secondary schooling in 2015 and has since left her child in the care of family in her village so that she can continue her studies at university in Dili.
Meanwhile, the General Director for the Secretariat of State for the Socio-Economic Support of Women (SEM), Armando da Costa, acknowledged that although the government had not yet established a formal policy, it had been implemented in practice.
"The Ministry of Education continues to discuss the policy, but I think in practice it has already been implemented in public schools," he said.
He said SEM would continue to work with the Ministry of Education to find a good solution to the issue and that the government was committed to applying CEDAWS' recommendations by promoting women's participation in the national development process.
Thomas Ora, Dili Timor-Leste's Dili Diocese has declared 2017 as the Year of the Bible to boost people's faith and understanding of the Gospel as the main source of Christian life.
The declaration was made based on recommendations from a liturgy conference held last year.
To start the special year, the diocese held Bible classes from Feb. 28 to March 10 for representatives from various communities.
Pope Francis emphasized the importance of the Bible by calling on Catholics worldwide "to always read the Bible," Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said.
"I hope those who attended the Bible classes act like prophets, and become more involved in Christian communities," Bishop Da Silva said at a ceremony marking the end of the Bible classes on March 10.
"I invite all Catholics to renew their spiritual life during this Lent," Bishop Da Silva said.
The bishop who was installed in Dili in 2016 expected Timor Leste Catholics, particularly young people, to ground themselves in biblical values, and always strive to conquer temptation.
Father Jovito Rego de Jesus Araujo, head of Dili's Pastoral and Catechetical Commission, said the diocese conducted Bible classes for 63 catechists, church activists, and youth. "More people will attend classes later in the year," he added.
Dili Diocese is the oldest diocese in Timor-Leste with an estimated 590,000 Catholics living in 30 parishes and cared for by more than 100 priests.
"Despite Timor-Leste being a Catholic majority nation, reading the Bible has not been habitual," Father Araujo said. "We want Catholics to read the Bible at home and carry it with them when they go to church," he added.
Father Mouzinho Pereira Lopes, one of priests who conducted the classes, said people attending were taught how to relate Gospel messages with reality, such as by visiting the sick, prisoners, and persons with disabilities.
"They are examples of people who need more attention and love," he said. "So Catholics must bring the Gospel to those people," he added.
Antoninho de Jesus, 20, from St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hatulia, 30km from Dili, attended the Bible classes.
He admitted that Catholics in his group do not read the Bible much. "I will encourage people to use the Bible in community prayers," he told ucanews.com.
To support the "Year of the Bible" program, several churches such as St. Anthony's Church in Dili, have distributed Bibles to families with the hope that they will teach other people in the communities where they live.
Thomas Ora, Dili In a sign of how much influence the Catholic Church retains in Timor-Leste all eight presidential candidates together with 5,000 people, joined a prayer rally in Dili to mark the start of campaigning ahead of the March 20 election.
In acknowledgement of the country's turbulent past since its colonial Portuguese masters left in 1975, candidates signed an agreement for a peaceful campaign on white linen after walking, chanting the Rosary, on March 2 from St. Joseph's Church to a Marian shrine next to the Dili bishop's residence.
The campaign, in which Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo is seen as the front-runner, kicked off on March 3 and ends on March 17.
The presidential election will be followed by elections for the nation's one house parliament in July where the party with the most seats chooses the prime minister.
While the presidency is somewhat symbolic, the holder of the office is the commander in chief of the armed forces and has power to veto certain legislation
"The church wants leaders who love peace and embrace all elements of society, to ensure growth in all aspects," Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said, speaking after the march. "Everyone should accept whoever wins the presidential race on March 20," he added.
Jose Ramos-Horta, former Timor-Leste president and Noble Peace Prize laureate, called on all political leaders to follow a peace agreement - facilitated by the Catholic Church - that ended civil strife following independence from Indonesia. "As Christians we all should love peace, which is the cultural identity of Timor," he said.
Five of the eight presidential candidates are supported by political parties, namely Antonio Maher Lopes (Socialist Party of Timor); Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor); Jose Luis Guterres (Front for National Reconstruction of Timor-Leste Change); Maria Angela Freitas da Silva (Labour Party); and Antonio da Conceicao (Democratic Party).
Three are independent candidates, Jose Antonio de Jesus das Neves, a former guerrilla leader and deputy commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Amorin Vieirra and Luis Alves Tilman.
Da Silva and Lu-Olo unsuccessfully ran for president in 2002. Lu-Olo, 63, is said to be the strongest among the candidates as Fretelin - the country's biggest political party - and the National Congress support him as does Timorese Reconstruction, a political party founded by former President Xanana Kayrala Gusmao.
Gusmao is scheduled to accompany Lu-Olo during the campaign. "My younger brother Lu-Olo has a profound mission for our beloved country," Gusmao told reporters.
Lu-Olo said one of his programs is to provide better education for youths and equip them with required skills, so that they can contribute more to the state and church. "It's also to curb unemployment," he added.
Meanwhile Da Silva said rampant corruption has hampered progress in Timor-Leste, and promised to fight graft should she be elected as president. "Fighting corruption begins with bureaucrats avoiding self aggrandizement," she told reporters.
DomiNGOs Alves, 52, a farmer from Atauro Island, expected the next president to be a person who can improve people's lives on the island, particularly five villages that have no clean water.
"We have to walk more than a kilometer to fetch water from a river," he said. "As a result, many people do not have toilets and defecate in open spaces," Alves told ucanews.com.
Lindsay Murdoch, Dili East Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta has lashed out at what he calls "outrageous" claims before an Australian parliamentary committee that his country could be heading towards becoming a failed state.
"What fly-in, fly-out so-called instant experts on East Timor claim is outrageous... it's just nonsense," Dr Ramos Horta, a Nobel laureate and East Timor's former president and prime minister, told Fairfax Media.
"It's either ignorance or malice," he said, adding: "I'm sorry. I don't pay much attention to these so-called academics."
Rebecca Strating, a lecturer at Victoria's La Trobe University, told parliament's treaties committee on 14 March it could "very well be" that East Timor is the "architect of its own demise" and there are indications that like a number of fragile resource-wealthy post-conflict states, the country is "resource cursed".
She said a window on developing the $US40 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea has "partially" closed because of lower gas prices and a long-running dispute with Australia over how to develop it.
"There are elections this year... a change of government or a change in personalities might produce a government that is willing to think a little more laterally or flexibly around the interests in the Timor Sea," Dr Strating said.
"But since 2012 it seems to me that this pursuit of independence may actually create a failed state in Timor-Leste [East Timor]," she said.
In response, Hansard records the chair of the committee telling Dr Strating "tremendous... most enlightening. 'The architect of their own demise' is my favourite statement of the day."
Speaking after East Timorese voted at presidential elections on Monday, Dr Ramos Horta said his country's sovereign wealth fund has $US16 billion to $US17 billion invested around the world and is spending some of it to develop badly needed infrastructure.
He said the government in Dili is talking with a consortium led by ConocoPhillips to resurrect shelved plans to develop Greater Sunrise before negotiations with Australia on sea borders are completed by a September deadline.
"I would say there is a very good chance that Greater Sunrise will be developed," he said. "How, I don't know. I am not involved."
East Timor's independence hero and political powerbroker Xanana Gusmao has demanded gas from the field be piped to a proposed $US1.4 billion industrial complex on the country's remote southern coast.
The ConocoPhillips consortium wants the gas to be extracted through a floating platform or to an existing refinery in Darwin.
Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, who is set to become East Timor's next president, has also told Fairfax Media there are now "better prospects" for developing Greater Sunrise, which would deliver billions of dollars in revenue to his country.
But Clive Schofield, director of research at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Research and Security, told the parliamentary committee that at current gas prices it is "not entirely likely" that a commercial decision would be made to develop Greater Sunrise.
"We have low oil and gas prices. I suspect the asset, as it were, will be put on the shelf until such a time as gas prices in particular rise sufficiently to make it viable," he said.
Asked about Dr Ramos Horta's comments, Dr Strating said she wanted to clarify that she does not think East Timor is "necessarily" heading towards becoming a failed state only that this is possible if an agreement is not reached before oil revenues from an existing oil and gas field and the sovereign wealth fund run out.
"This is why it is so vital for Australia and Timor-Leste to find a hasty compromise [on Greater Sunrise]," Dr Strating said.
"Timor-Leste only has five years until the oil revenues are gone. The revenues provide over 90 per cent of the state budget," she said. "If Timor-Leste does not have a source of income to provide for state budgets it is very possible that it will become dependent on aid."
Dr Strating said multiple reports had predicted the sovereign fund could be depleted within a decade. She said her comments were not made out of malice but for concern about what happens if East Timor and Australia are unable to reach an "expedient" agreement on Greater Sunrise.
"Typical of journalists... I gave Lydnsey Murdoch a complete explanation on the major effort undertaken by our Government in infrastructure building (modern power supply to now 80% of the country, road and bridges network, a new port, etc) as the indispensable basis for diversifying the economy. Nothing of this appears in the article. And then SMH gives more time and space in the article to this novice academic from LaTrobe Univ to repeat her non-sense presentation to the Australian parliamentary committee. And the title of the article is misleading... I didn't "lash out at Australia". I did "lash" out at the doomsday academic. In fact I did mention the very important role Australia has played in Timor-Leste and commended leaders of the two countries for their wisdom in progressing on the maritime talks under UN auspices."
She remembers a tall, handsome fighter by the name of Xanana. "He liked to eat a soup made from corn, pumpkin and papaya leaves," she says of the man who became the hero of East Timor's independence, and remains the most powerful figure in Asia's youngest democracy.
But like many other Timorese survivors of 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation and a violent withdrawal of Jakarta's troops after an independence vote in 1999, 57-year-old Gomes says her family's life has barely improved.
"We have got little. Life is very hard for us," Gomes says, as her husband chops wood on a hillside beside a road snaking into Dili, where she has lived since Indonesian troops arrested her four decades ago, and brought her down from the mountains. Two of her sons and a daughter have died.
Like scores of others living in deplorable slums encircling Dili, Gomes' family has no running water or sanitation and no money to buy medicines for her two daughters in their 20s and early 30s, or their children, when they become sick.
Gomes and her husband collect and sell wood and try to grow corn but the rains did not come and the latest crop failed. "We have written a letter and tried to see Xanana [Gusmao], to tell him about us, but we have not heard anything," she says.
From Gomes' shack perched on the hill she can gaze to Dili, the town where she was born during an era of largely neglected Portuguese rule, which has been transformed since 1999 when pro-Indonesian militia and Indonesian security forces burnt, looted and rampaged, turning it into a wasteland.
In 1999, I was in East Timor covering the tumultuous events. "We drive in silence through mass destruction, past street after street of smouldering ruin," I wrote with tears in my eyes on September 10, 1999, after I had scrambled onto a RAAF Hercules aircraft, the last evacuation flight from Dili.
Pot-holed tracks have become sealed roads. Instead of frequent blackouts there is power 24-hours a day. Health officials have reduced malaria, which they aim to eliminate by 2020.
There is a shopping mall with an elevator, cinema, casino and even a Burger King's and Gloria Jean's, selling Timorese coffee.
The rustic waterfront Hotel Turismo, where journalists, diplomats and spies once huddled in the beer garden, speaking in whispers about Indonesia's occupation, has been rebuilt into a posh hotel with waiters wearing vests.
There are cavernous Chinese-built government offices and statues of heroes of East Timor's struggle. A Timorese-Chinese consortium is planning two 17-storey office towers that include a restaurant that can sit 400 people.
Outside Dili, former president Xanana and other leaders mostly former resistance fighters are pushing ahead with multibillion-dollar projects, including a $US1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) down payment on an industrial complex on the southern remote coast designed to process gas from the $40 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea.
There are also plans for development of a special economic and free trade zone in the tiny former Portuguese enclave of Oecusse that includes highways, an international standard airport, marina, hospital, hotels, a water park and golf course.
Critics say the projects involve significant economic and political risks at a critical point in the resource-rich nation's history.
Fifteen years after gaining independence, some observers and opposition politicians say it is time for East Timor to take stock and re-access how to empower ordinary Timorese to participate in nation building and tackle high unemployment, widespread preventable diseases and malnutrition, land rights issues, illiteracy, corruption and cronyism.
They argue optimism that utopian projects will in the short term reduce poverty and improve the lives of ordinary Timorese is unfounded.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has since 2008 ranked East Timor as the most democratic nation in south-east Asia.
But opposition politicians say Xanana and his ruling executive from a coalition comprising his National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT) and Fretilin, the party that led East Timor's independence struggle, now have unfettered powers.
Sweeping authority and generous funding have been given to Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri to turn Oecusse, which is surrounded by Indonesia, into a business and tourist hub,
This elite group appears likely to hold on to power at general elections in July, after their candidate Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, a former resistance commander, decisively won presidential elections last Monday, intensifying concerns East Timor has become a dominant one-party state without a viable opposition.
Around 78 per cent of the $US1.38 billion state budget for 2017 will come from oil and gas revenues and the country has failed to diversify to sustainable manufacturing and agriculture.
The country's only producing gas field, which has provided about $US20 billion in revenue over the past 10 years, is drying up and output is expected to stop between 2020 and 2022.
Greater Sunrise has been shelved amid a bitter stand-off with Australia over sea borders, although there is renewed hope among East Timor's leaders that the project will be resurrected this year by a consortium led by Woodside.
Seventy-year-old Xanana is insisting that gas from Greater Sunrise be piped to the southern coast, a gamble that could bring in $US25 billion over 25 years or send the country broke.
To be sure, without revenues from Greater Sunrise the country's multibillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund will dwindle or even be depleted within a decade if spending patterns and plans progress, analysts say.
Woodside and its partners want the gas extracted from a floating platform. Soon a floating platform that is the world's biggest vessel and six times the weight of the largest aircraft carrier will sail past East Timor on its maiden voyage from South Korea to Shell's Prelude field off the Western Australia coast.
Charles Scheiner from the Dili-based think-tank Lao Hamutuk believes the southern coast developments will not make back the money they will cost.
"And it will be a lot more perhaps as much as $US10-$20 billion if Timor-Leste [East Timor] pays for all the infrastructure, including pipeline, LNG plant and refinery," he says.
"Timor-Leste needs to invest its finite resources more wisely in education, health care and local infrastructure which will benefit local citizens rather than foreign construction companies."
Lao Hamutuk has also questioned whether the Oecusse projects should be funded from public funds and how they will benefit the enclave's 70,000 population, some of whom face displacement.
Jose Ramos Horta, a former president and prime minister and still an influential figure in Dili, rejects what he calls doomsday predictions that his country is heading towards becoming a failed state or that the sovereign fund will dry up, and backs Xanana's vision to prioritise the building of infrastructure.
But in an election year, the mega-projects have become a key issue. More than 40 per cent of Timorese live below the poverty line, 30 per cent of adults cannot read and 70 per cent live in rural areas with limited health services.
American Dan Murphy, the head doctor at Dili's Bairo Pite Clinic, says there have been improvements to the health of Timorese since he arrived in East Timor in 1998.
"But to be honest, the improvements have been so slow as to be almost not noticeable," says the 73-year-old doctor, who is regarded as a saint-like figure by his patients.
"Severe malnutrition remains such a huge problem among children that even if many of them survive, they may not even be able to have a normal life," he says.
"Higher population densities mean that diseases spread pretty much as they want to and women are still dying here in child-birth." Murphy says at least once a week his clinic saves a mother's life.
Mario Carrascalao, a 79-year-old former Indonesian-era governor and former deputy prime minister, believes billions of dollars should not be allocated for mega-projects before Timorese have basic necessities like water, sanitation and improved health care and education.
"For me, the priority should be the small people. Then when you get to a certain level, you can go the bigger projects," he says.
Out-going president Jose Maria Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak, who is aligned with the recently formed People's Liberation Party, has repeatedly spoken out against corruption, last year comparing Xanana and Alkatiri to the former Indonesian dictator Suharto, saying there is "widespread discontent" among the public that their families are benefiting from lucrative government contracts.
He said the men, whose families have extensive business interests in the country, had divided power among themselves while crushing any dissent. The government denies the claims.
Some businesspeople complain they face seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles, while other companies win dubious but lucrative contacts.
Estanislau da Silva, the minister for agriculture, fisheries and co-ordinating minister for economic affairs, has ordered an investigation into how a fleet of 15 Chinese vessels was granted a 12-month lease to fish in sovereign waters for a modest fee of just $US312,450.
The company Pingtan Marine Enterprises had previously boasted its vessels can each generate annual revenue of $US3 million.
Australian businessman Ed Turner says he has left the country after 10 years trying to build its only national airline, Air Timor.
The airline quit the once-lucrative Dili to Bali route in January after East Timor authorities had handed operating licences to Indonesian airline Sriwijaya and its budget subsidiary NAM Airlines.
Fares collapsed on the route and Air Timor could not compete. The airline has sacked more than 20 Timorese workers and now only flies the Dili to Singapore route twice a week.
"It's a third world country to do business in," says Turner who has sold his shares in Air Timor but retains an interest through loans.
"Many people will tell you to get officials on side you have to give them girls and money," he says. "If you don't do that you won't succeed... even people who do that often don't succeed anyway."
East Timor's former finance minister Emilia Pires, who is also an Australian citizen, was allowed to leave the country before a court last year sentenced her to seven years jail on corruption charges, which she is trying to fight through an appeal to a Portuguese court.
In January Xanana criticised the verdict and accused some court officials of corruption. Former justice minister Lucia Lobato was also sentenced to five years jail in 2012 on corruption charges.
Ramos Horta says while he makes no judgment about the guilt of the two former ministers he believes they should have received suspended sentences.
The Nobel laureate says there is corruption but insists claims it is rampant at the highest levels of government are exaggerated because of the way the system is set up.
Xanana says East Timor is not yet ready for a transition to a younger generation of leaders in the country where almost two thirds of the population is under 30 years old. But Ramos Horta is helping the government set up an institute to train future leaders.
On September 7, 1999, at the height of violence in Dili, a baby was born on a piece of cardboard next to where I was sleeping in the besieged United Nations compound in Dili.
His mother Joanna Remejio gave him the middle name of Unamet, the acronym for the United Nations mission that made it possible for 439,000 Timorese to vote for their freedom.
I find now 17-year-old Pedro Unamet Remejio painting portraits in his mother's house in a Dili suburb, his passion.
"I am not worried about the future of my country... I plan to study to become an engineer and will find a job when I leave school, so I can help my family," he says.
Venidora Oliveira Police registered 1741 traffic accidents in 2016, which caused the deaths of 71 people.
Second General Commander National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL), Commissioner Faustino da Costa said that the majority of accidents occurred in Dili municipality, where 1600 accidents were registered. "The accidents mostly happen because the driver loses control," he said.
In comparison there were 1664 accidents registered in 2015, leading to 89 deaths, 417 serious injuries and 1158 light injuries.
Although the number of deaths had decreased, he said there had been no reduction in the number of light and serious injuries caused by road accidents.
He said traffic police continued to raise awareness among students and motorists about road and traffic regulations. The program aimed to increase understanding among road users about traffic rules.
However, national MP Paul Moniz said the number of accidents remained high as many motorists ignored road rules and regulations despite ongoing efforts to raise awareness.
"When we break the law that means that we have no responsibility anymore and when we cause an accident it is not only us that are the victims, but also others."
Venidora Oliveira Timor-Leste Defense Force (F-FDTL) Chief, Major-General Lere Anan Timor has called on the government to give more attention to the wellbeing of 23 veterans who retired in 2015 and now live in miserable conditions.
He said the veterans were retired by the institution because of their age based on the military statute law.
Although the government provided reintegration subsidies to the veterans when they retired, it was only a one-off payment and not enough to meet ongoing living costs. "They live and die in poverty, [so] they need attention," he said.
In response to the issue, Defense Minister Cirilo Cristovao said the government had already provided a total of $15,000 in subsidies, which had been shared among the 23 veterans when they retired.
"We also built houses for them in Baucau, Viqueque, Lospalos and Ainaro and the places are decided by them," he said.
He said although the government recognized the contribution made by those who sacrificed their lives for the country's independence, he acknowledged that it could still do more and therefore several programs had been created to respond to the situation faced by veterans.
Meanwhile, national MP Albina Marcal said veterans had suffered a lot for their country and deserved to live a better life now Timor had won its independence.
"They (veterans) sacrificed their whole lives for this country during [the past] 24 years and the State should treat them well," she said.
Wellington New Zealand's top military officer left for Timor-Leste Monday in a show of support for the young Pacific nation's security.
The Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, said he would hold talks with Commander of the Timor-Leste Defence Force Major General Lere Anan Timur, Prime Minister Dr Rui Maria de Araujo and President Taur Matan Ruak.
"This is a good opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest and reaffirm New Zealand's commitment to Timor-Leste's security and prosperity," Keating said in a statement.
"New Zealand has a long history of defence cooperation with Timor-Leste, and a considerable number of current and former NZDF (New Zealand Defence Force) personnel were deployed to the country in various rotations to help ensure stability after the independence referendum from Indonesia in 1999," he said.
"The NZDF continues to maintain a small presence in Timor-Leste, with two personnel currently deployed as part of the Mutual Assistance Program, providing logistics training and strategic advice to the Timor-Leste Defence Force."
The visit is the latest in a series of exchanges to strengthen ties between the two countries. Last week Prime Minister Rui Araujo and two other ministers visited New Zealand and held talks with Prime Minister Bill English.
Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 2002. Keating would go on to Perth, Australia, from Timor-Leste to observe Exercise Ocean Explorer, an Australian-led maritime military exercise involving three New Zealand ships.
Venidora Oliveira The National Parliament has established a law making it illegal to carry weapons while inside a vehicle.
National MP Antoninho Bianco said the context of the law was to criminalize and condemn those who consciously brought weapons such as swords, machetes and barbed arrows inside a car.
He said this type of criminal activity continued to thrive in Timor-Leste and was making many people feel insecure.
"The law has been established [and] is just waiting to be discussed. When it has been approved this will protect the people," Bianco said. He said the law would also determine the length of the sentence imposed for those committing such a crime.
In the meantime, he called on police to strengthen the number of patrols in the sukus (villages) and sub-villages in order to prevent criminal activity and deter those responsible.
"[We need] more patrols so people who want to commit crimes are scared to do so due to the police presence everywhere," he said.
Although the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) were taking steps to maintain security by placing officers in sukus, he said those efforts were still inadequate.
However, Second Commander of Dili Municipality, Superintendent Assistant Euclidis Belo said police regularly conducted routine patrols at night in the sukus and sub-villages. "We always patrol at night to prevent conflict and crime," he said.
He said the establishment of the law was a positive step as police seized many weapons last year, but the perpetrators had not faced any consequences for their actions.
Venidora Oliveira Criminal Investigation Service (SIK) registered 4049 criminal cases in 2016.
Second General Commander of the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) Commissioner Faustino da Costa said of that number there was a high prevalence of assault cases, with 969 registered cases.
He said in some of the cases the final decision from the court was pending, while others were still being processed. "We see a high rate of these cases [and] therefore the community and police should work together to reduce it," the Commissioner said.
When conflict occurs in the villages, he said the community sometimes refused to cooperate with police or provide any information. As a result, he said this allowed people to continue their involvement in criminal activity.
"When the patrol car arrives at the place, everyone denies [there was a crime] and says that the perpetrators are from another village. It means that there is a lack of cooperation from the community," he said.
However, he said Manufahi municipality registered just 48 cases in 2016, a lower number compared to other municipalities.
On the other hand, National MP Cesar Valente said the registered crime cases were classified as serious and should be prevented. "Our criminal cases remain high, [so] it means that we should work harder," he said.
Therefore, he said everyone must play a part in helping to prevent crime.
Venidora Oliveira Secretary of State for the Socio-Economic Support of Women (SEM) has provided training to policewomen to help improve their leadership and public speaking skills.
The head of SEM's training department, Filomena Martins, said the main objective of the training was to improve the decision-making abilities of policewomen in senior positions.
The training also covered public speaking, which focused on how women could boost their confidence and structure discussions. "The training is very important because some of them (participants) are holding the position of commander," Martins said.
She acknowledged that it remained difficult for women working within the PNTL to make decisions due to the hierarchical system in place, but called on the institution to give more consideration to decisions made by female commanders. SEM is now working with UN Women and civil society to advocate on women's issues.
The training was held over a one-week period and participants were based at police stations in 13 different municipalities.
She said the same training would be provided to women serving in the Timor-Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL), so that they were also well informed on such issues.
Pante Makassar station Commander in the Oecusse region, Inspector Adelaide de Rosa said she was proud that through the training policewomen would now have a better understanding of the decision-making process.
She said policewomen could also feel more confident when speaking at any forum or leading a discussion. "We can get benefits from the training [and] I will share the information with other women who have not been able to take a part," she said.
New Zealand and Timor Leste have signed a five-year cooperation agreement aimed in part at helping reduce the Southeast Asian nation's reliance on oil.
Timor Leste, formerly known as East Timor, formally gained independence from Indonesia 15 years ago, after an armed intervention led by New Zealand and Australia.
Timor Leste Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo is in New Zealand and met with Prime Minister Bill English.
Dr de Araujo said the agreement signed with New Zealand covered many areas, including help to boost Timor Leste's organic coffee production and help with government budgeting. He said the country needed to diversify its economy away from oil as reserves were running low.
"In the areas of agriculture, New Zealand is supporting small farmers to rehabilitate their coffee plantations, in the area of institutional strengthening they are supporting the justice sector to strengthen its capacity. Community policing, which is very strong here in New Zealand, is also part of this exchange."
The prime minister said he would visit the families of the New Zealand peacekeepers who died while serving in Timor Leste. He said Australia had agreed to discuss Timor Leste's maritime boundaries, which could open up further oil and gas reserves.
"We are grateful that Australia is now willing to sit at the table and discuss those issues, it has done with all other neighbours except Timor Leste. So we expect that, now that they want to do that, we will be able to nail down some solutions during the next coming months."
Venidora Oliveira Police have ended their operations targeting illegal casinos in Dili after the government, through the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Environment, legalized the gambling venues.
Second General Commander National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL), Commissioner Faustino da Costa said under the law, the government previously banned casinos.
He said police decided to end operations after discussions with the Public Ministry as the majority of casinos were now legally allowed to operate. He said the government made the decision to better control security and generate state revenue through taxes.
However, he called on the government to provide the PNTL with data on the number of casinos operating so that it was easier to control. He said police were currently only aware of two casinos: one in Dili and another in Covalima.
Meanwhile, MP Jacinta Abuc Cau Pereira acknowledged that illegal gambling venues in Dili had continued to thrive despite the government ban. "It has been legalized now as based on experience it is very difficult for the government to control this type of gambling," she said.
While she supported the government's decision, she also called for adequate regulations to prevent young people and children participating in gambling. "Otherwise it may ruin their mentality and their future," she said.
National MP Arao Noe also agreed with the decision, but said stronger controls and security were needed.
He said, gambling had an integrated impact on families, particularly if the head of the family was involved. "If he spends a lot of money on gambling, how can he save money for his children's schooling?" he said.
Daniel Flitton The site in East Timor where Indonesian troops killed five Australian journalists in 1975 will be transformed with the construction of a new conference centre after a $100,000 donation by the Victorian government.
Victoria will also provide $60,000 to East Timor over the next three years to train nurses for a new dental clinic.
Espionage claims have dogged the relationship between the federal government and East Timor in recent years with no Australian minister visiting the country since 2013.
But Victoria's Planning Minister Richard Wynne travelled to East Timor this week, meeting Prime Minister Rui Araujo and local leaders ahead of a presidential poll this month and parliamentary elections later in the year.
Mr Wynne told Fairfax Media there was hope in East Timor of settling the maritime boundary dispute with Australia after the two countries agreed in January to cancel a controversial treaty at the centre of spying allegations.
East Timor also agreed to drop a legal case, having accused Australia of eavesdropping on the country's cabinet office. "Cautious optimism would be the way to describe it, that there can be a just outcome in the renegotiation," Mr Wynne said.
The Victorian support to East Timor is entirely separate from Australia's official aid program, and Mr Wynne said the small conference centre in Balibo, with facilities for up to 50 people, would boost local employment.
Mr Wynne said this was his fourth trip to East Timor, and that his interest in the country dated back to the years of Indonesian occupation.
Balibo, a small village in the country's west, was the site where five Australian TV network journalists were cut down by invading Indonesian troops a story told in a 2009 film of the same name.
Mr Wynne said the Victorian government has supported the Balibo House Trust, the board of which includes Shirley Shackleton, wife of Greg Shackleton, the Channel 7 journalist who made a haunting last broadcast from Balibo before he was killed.
The patron of Balibo House Trust is former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, who also acted as a special adviser to Xanana Gusmao when he was East Timor's prime minister.
When she was only five years old, Isabelina Pinto was taken from her family by an Indonesian soldier. She was one of thousands of children taken to Indonesia during its brutal 30-year occupation of East Timor.
Decades later she found her family and now works to reunite others. The BBC's Rebecca Henschke tells her story.
She remembers clearly the day an Indonesian soldier visited her family in their village in Viqueque. It was a Sunday after church, the time of day when Christian soldiers tried to get close to the ordinary residents of Catholic-majority East Timor.
"The soldier said 'if we don't take this child, we can kill you all'. He wanted a daughter, he didn't have one," Isabelina recalls. It didn't take long for her to realise she was being taken away from home.
"I was crying and crying. When we got to the port he lost his patience and he plunged me into the sea. He pushed me under the water two times. The other soldiers said 'Why did you do that, you have made her faint?' So she will forget East Timor," came his reply.
She didn't forget. Isabelina now makes it her life's work to find the "lost children" who have now grown up and to find the families they were taken from.
It is estimated that around 4,000 children from East Timor were separated from their families between 1975 and 1999 by the Indonesian military, state, or religious organisations. Why take the children?
"They were removed without the genuine consent of their parents; some of them were well cared for, educated and loved. But many were abused or abandoned," says Galuh Wandita, director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).
"The military wanted to 'adopt' the children of the resistance as a way to punish, weaken and humiliate the enemy," she says.
It's not clear exactly why such a practice was encouraged but the psychology of occupation may well play a role. Bringing home a child became almost a trophy, proof of the military's success in subjugating rebellious East Timor. In other cases, religious groups promised parents that they would be educated, but converted them to Islam.
Some of the army figures who "adopted" Timorese children are still powerful figures in Indonesia. The BBC approached them for comment, but they declined.
"Those who took children acted out of varied motivations," says Helene Van Klinken, author of Making them Indonesian. "Some wanted to educate and promote Indonesian culture and showcase its superiority," she points out.
It did create an extraordinary generation and many of East Timor's "lost children" have grown up to make names for themselves in their own right.
Alfredo Reinado was recruited by the military when he was 11 and taken back to Java in a wooden box that was nailed shut so he couldn't escape. He went on to stage an attempted coup in East Timor in 2008.
Thomas Americo, who was the first boxer in Indonesia to compete against an international title holder, was also taken as a child.
"They picked out people who were good at sport," says Dr Klinken. "I think they were hoping that they would become the military for East Timor, but they had problems with them because they trained them up and then they joined the resistance."
The former head of the Indonesian military, Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, adopted a number of children from East Timor and Papua. One of them was Hercules Rozario Marcal, who has become a notorious gang leader in Jakarta and is currently serving a jail sentence.
The officer who took Isabelina had always wanted a daughter, but her memories are of sexual abuse.
"He did things from the very beginning on the boat that were not the things you do to a daughter," she said. "The only thing he didn't do was rape me."
Isabelina's family never stopped looking for her and a few years ago when her nephew went to study in Indonesia, he tracked her down.
"My oldest child ran in saying your relative is here, he looks so much like you! I went back into the bedroom to pray and I started crying. My son came in and said, 'why are you crying. You can stop now... your family is here!'"
Her work has seen her reunite nearly 40 lost children with their families. She travels across the Indonesian archipelago trying to track them down using photos and bits of information she gleans from teams in East Timor.
"I know what it feels like to not see your family for 30 years. Missing your family for that long is incredibly painful. It's like you're living a lie."
In 2008 a bilateral Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) recommended the establishment of a commission for the disappeared that would include looking for children who were separated due to the conflict.
"It's a delicate issue," says Jacinto Alves, one of the Timorese Commissioners. "It's been eight years and not much has been achieved."
The person now in charge of following up Indonesia's response to the recommendations is Wiranto, a former military general indicted by a United Nations panel for atrocities in East Timor.
As army chief, he was implicated by the panel in the bloodshed in which nearly 1,000 people died. His office did not respond to the BBC's request for an interview.
But the Indonesian government supports the reunions organised through AJAR. They help participants get passports and travel documents and paid for some flights home.
The Timorese government welcomes the returning lost children with open arms and offers them dual citizenship, but Indonesia does not.
Indonesia says they help facilitate reunions in the spirit of "reconciliation", but insists on calling them "separated children" and does not accept that they were taken by force.
Many of the lost children no longer speak the local language, Tetem, and many have converted to Islam.
"All of them have lived a very hard life... they have been tough all their lives and now they need to work hard again to build up trust and fit back into a family life. I feel sorry for them," says Isabelina.
They often return too late to see their mother or father again. "Other than time travel we cannot reach back to the past and fill the abducted children's long lonely nights... but there is an opportunity to right a wrong. But the remaining time is short," says Galuh Wandita.
What kept Isabelina going all those years was something her father told her before she left. "When you look at the sky and feel the warmth of the sun and at night, see the moonlight, your family will be seeing the same thing and you will know that they are missing you."
Sue Ingram Last week, Francisco Guterres became Timor-Leste's first party-affiliated president. While the election broke new ground structurally and procedurally, the office of president is still firmly in the hands of the 1975 generation of resistance leaders.
The results of Timor-Leste's presidential election on 20 March produced a number of firsts. For the first time, a candidate from a political party rather than an independent has been elected; for the first time since Timor-Leste became a nation in 2002, a candidate has won office in the first round of voting; for the first time, an election was conducted without the logistical and security support of a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission deployed in the country; and for the first time, some out-of-country Timorese were able to vote.
But in one important respect this election marks more of the same: once again, a senior figure from Timor-Leste's historical resistance movement has won the office of president.
Preliminary results give Francisco Guterres (Lu-Olo) from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) a decisive majority of 57.1 per cent of the vote, at last handing him the presidency after coming second in 2007 and 2012. This time Lu-Olo had the strong backing of Timor-Leste's kingmaker, iconic resistance leader, former president and former prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. This was a far cry from the 2012 election when Gusmao was reported in the local media as discouraging voters from supporting a partisan candidate (inferentially, Lu-olo) in the second-round vote for the presidency on the grounds that, if elected, that person could favour their own party in their exercise of presidential power.
In backing Lu-Olo this time around, Gusmao held back from fielding a candidate from the political party which he himself heads, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT). One view on the ground is that some CNRT supporters are feeling disheartened about the uncharted future of their party and without a candidate of their own did not bother to turn out on the day. The overall voter turnout of 67.9 per cent 10 per cent down on the first round vote in the 2012 election could bear this out. CNRT party members may well still be carrying the bruises from February 2015 when Gusmao stepped down from the prime ministership, backing a senior FRETILIN figure to succeed him. At the time he wrote to the party executives of his own governing coalition observing unambiguously that in his opinion there was no-one in the coalition block with the requisite skill-set for the job.
Runner-up to Lu-Olo, Antonio da Conceicao, made a strong showing with 32.5 per cent of the vote. A senior minister in the current national unity government, Conceicao comes from a minor party, the Democratic Party (PD), which won only 10.3 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary election. Conceicao represents the voice of the new generation, and a grassroots approach to national development that focuses on the basics of water, sanitation, schools and clinics. It's a position akin to the incumbent President Taur Matan Ruak (TMR) who, additionally, has trenchantly criticised the current government's spending on costly megaprojects at the expense of pro-poor public spending. Conceicao had the tacit backing of President Taur Matan Ruak and, according to the EU observer mission, he was also backed by the recently formed political party which TMR is expected to head once his term ends.
Lu-olo is the first candidate from a political party to be elected to the presidency; previous presidents had no party affiliation. Timor-Leste's first president, Xanana Gusmao, was deeply wary of partisan politics and stood in 2002 as an independent with the backing of several political parties. As president, he questioned the constitutionality of 2006 legislation providing for the inclusion of party symbols on the presidential ballot paper. While the Appeal Court upheld the legislation, the presidential elections in 2007 and 2012 nonetheless returned non-partisan candidates. Lu-olo, the president of FRETILIN from 2001, has bucked the trend, albeit on a de facto unity ticket with CNRT. Depending on the outcome of July's parliamentary election, the Lu-olo presidency may mark the end of the sometimes tense relationship between president and prime minister that has been evident in previous governments.
This is the first presidential election since independence that has produced a definitive outcome in the first round of voting, despite a field of eight candidates. In the first presidential election, held just weeks before Timor-Leste's independence on 20 May 2002, only two candidates stood, one of whom was Xanana Gusmao. The outcome was a lay down misere. In both 2007 and 2012, with a candidate field of 8 and 13 respectively, the presidential race went to a second round.
This is also the first presidential election in Timor-Leste held without the considerable logistical and security support of an in-country UN peacekeeping mission. The UN's peacekeeping presence ended on 31 December 2012, following the largely peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections earlier that year. This time around, Timor-Leste's National Electoral Commission and national security services fully managed the electoral process and the dynamics on the ground without international assistance. The EU mission observing the election has reported positively on its transparent and robust processes and the peaceful atmosphere in which it was conducted.
An amendment to the electoral law earlier this year introduced out-of-country voting for the first time, and polling was set up at a handful of locations in Portugal and Australia. Voter numbers were modest given the size of overseas communities in the polling locations: a total of 525 voters, fairly evenly split between the two countries.
All of Timor-Leste's presidents so far have been prominent figures from the 24-year resistance to Indonesian occupation which began in December 1975 in the wake of the collapse of the Portuguese colonial administration in the territory and the decolonisation process that was then underway.
Timor-Leste's first president, Xanana Gusmao, led the resistance from the late 1970s, progressively rebuilding and broadening its support base and modus operandi. The country's second president, Jose Ramos Horta, who on his own account was encouraged to stand by Gusmao, was a tireless international campaigner for independence whose efforts were recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize. The third president, Taur Matan Ruak, fought in the armed resistance from the outset and became head of the armed force in 1998 following the jailing of Gusmao in 1992 and the death of his successor at the head of the armed wing. Lu-olo joined FRETILIN, the pro-independence party formed in 1974, and fought with the armed resistance when Indonesia invaded, rising through the ranks as a political cadre to become a top political leader in FRETILIN and, from 1998, the most senior office-holder in the party.
As original members of the resistance, at home or abroad, all of Timor-Leste's presidents belong to what is described in Timor-Leste as the 1975 generation. The "new generation", who spearheaded the civil disobedience campaigns that put the international spotlight back onto East Timor from the late 1980s, are chaffing for power. The presidential runner-up, Conceicao, is one of them. Gusmao made it clear in the lead-up to the presidential vote that it was not yet time for the younger generation of leaders to take over. The parliamentary elections in July will be their next big test.
Jonas Guterres and Khoo Ying Hooi The March 20 presidential election was the first election held in Timor-Leste without assistance from the international community since the United Nations (UN) Mission departed in 2012. It was considered a success, with elections held in an orderly and peaceful manner with no major incidents reported. March 20 was also the first time since the country's independence referendum that Timorese in Sydney and Darwin, Australia and Lisbon, Portugal could vote without travelling back to Dili.
This time around, it is interesting to see how each candidate diversified their campaign techniques to convince new voters and on-the-fence voters, as well as to retain old voters. Civil society organizations and media at the same time also played an increasing role in providing information about each candidate to the public through televised talk shows, interviews, and live debates.
This 2017 presidential election was an important test of Timor-Leste's stability in many ways. According to the latest figures released by the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE), Dr. Francisco Guterres, famously known as Lu-Olo, secured 57 percent of the votes while his closest rival, Antonio da Conceicao, or Kalohan, secured 32 percent of the votes. Those counts are still pending final confirmation, scheduled on April 2.
This election will strengthen the debate about a generational gap in Timor Leste. As generational dynamics are a significant element of Timor-Leste's contemporary discourse, the relationship between the "Generation of '99" or Jerasaun Foun and the "Generation of '75" or Jerasaun Tuan is crucial for the social cohesion of the country. Due to the long struggle for independence, the Jerasaun Foun (referring to the leaders who emerged in the 1980s and '90s in all fronts of the fight for independence from Indonesia) find themselves not having consensus in certain matters with the Portuguese-speaking Jerasaun Tuan, who now mostly dominate the government.
The victory of Lu-Olo, a candidate strongly backed by former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, further strengthened and confirmed the status quo of the country's leadership, which is still largely held by high-profile resistance leaders. Two formerly opposing parties, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), demonstrated that their new coalition continues to have strong support across the country.
CNRT and Fretilin were fierce rivals in the 2007 and 2012 elections. However this rivalry turned into an amicable political marriage when then-Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao of the CNRT reshuffled his cabinet and appointed a fresh figure from the Fretilin, Dr. Rui Araujo, as his successor. The Democratic Party (PD), who had until then formed a coalition with the CNRT, was miserably left out, becoming the lone (and weak) opposition in the parliament.
While the Xanana-led CNRT party pronounced their support for Lu-Olo from Fretilin, other smaller parties such as PD, Partidu Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (KHUNTO), and the nascent People's Liberation Party (PLP) pledged their support to Kalohan. Moving forward, it will be interesting to observe the potential of the PLP, which is formally established on December 9, 2015. The current President Taur Matan Ruak has publicly announced his affiliation with PLP and has displayed his take on some social and economic issues concerning the country.
PLP was established with a vision to "develop a democratic, just, and self-sufficient society." Its appeal lies in its people-centered policy. Targeting mainly young people and new voters, with firm support bases among veterans, academics, and activists, as well as the trade unions and farmers' organizations, the PLP's policy targets are more inward-looking. It puts people at the center of all policies and programs.
Sustainable rural-based economy is one key priority area that for the PLP. The new party emphasizes integrated development plans in important sectors such as a productive economy, social issues, infrastructure, consolidation of state sovereignty, and institutional reforms. The PLP's strategies include development of rural infrastructure, job creation, domestic productivity, primary healthcare, and accessibility to basic needs.
Democracy is highly valued in Timor-Leste. It proudly scored the highest ranking in Southeast Asia on the Economist Intelligence Unit's recent Democracy Index. But that spirit risks running low after 15 years of independence due to the domestic challenges that impact Timorese people's daily lives. The central concern in the country is now its high dependency on oil and gas revenues, with little distribution of power among its 1.2 million people.
The current development process is centralized in Dili and many Timorese peoples are left out in the process. During the resistance movement for independence, the people were the subject of the fight; now they have become the objects of development. The PLP comes into play as an attempt to be a credible alternative political force that can clearly define national development processes that address important issues and challenges encountered by Timorese peoples. Having said that, the establishment of the PLP is envisioned to not only to compete in the political arena, but to also provide space and opportunity for all Timorese.
The PLP is newly formed but it will be interesting to observe closely how far it could rise in Timorese politics in the near future, as it is a party that is issue-based and not highly dependent on figures. With such an approach, it could possibly be appealing to Timor-Leste's youth population, which is now getting more access to social media and information. As a new party, the PLP will, however, take some time to accumulate votes and push its political agenda. It may not be a strong force to reckon in the upcoming parliamentary election but it could possibly be in the next election.
For now, the alarming issues of growing corruption, imbalanced development, and widespread social and economic injustices in Timor-Leste remain largely untackled. At the end of the day, a democratic transition of leadership to a new party requires a shift in the attitude of the voters as well as a shift in Timor Leste's development principles. Having said that, it is crucial for the long run to have educated voters in order to facilitate such a transition and also to minimize the current elite-centric approach.
Jonas Guterres is an anti-corruption practitioner. He is former Advisor to Office of Commissioner at Anti-Corruption Commission of Timor Leste (CAC), and former recipient of United States Timor-Leste (USTL) scholarship funded by the State Department.
Damien Kingsbury East Timor's presidential election looks to have produced a strong victory for Fretilin's serial candidate, Francisco Guterres, known as Lu-Olo. While results remains unofficial, based on a largely complete tally, Lu-Olo was looking to have just under 60% of the total vote for the mostly ceremonial role of president.
This means that Lu-Olo will comfortably surpass the 50% plus one requirement for being elected as president without having to go to a run-off round. He will be the first presidential candidate to have won an absolute majority in the first presidential round since Xanana Gusmao was overwhelmingly elected as president in 2002.
Fretilin has already said that, if this vote is extrapolated into the parliamentary elections due mid-year, it intends to form a "government of national unity". In 2001, Fretilin received around two-thirds of the vote, but its support massively slumped soon after, with riots in the early 2000s culminating in the civil breakdown and external intervention of 2006.
After eight years in opposition, Fretilin currently governs in coalition with Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT). Gusmao had openly thrown his political support behind Lu-Olo for the presidency.
If the presidential election results remain on track, this will mark an improvement in both the vote of Fretilin and CNRT. In 2012, Lu-Olo received just under 29% of the vote, while Taur Matan Ruak, supported by CNRT, received just under 26% of the vote in the first round.
Ruak's vote jumped to almost 62% in 2012's second round, however, as minor parties consolidated their vote around his candidature. It appears that Gusmao's call for support for Lu-Olo in the 2017 election persuaded enough voters beyond Fretilin and CNRT's immediate support base to provide Lu-Olo with a comfortable margin of victory.
After standing as president in 2002 and giving his blessing to the successful presidential candidature of Jose Ramos-Horta in 2007 and Taur Matan Ruak in 2012, it appears that Gusmao's personal authority as "king or kingmaker" remains intact.
Lu-Olo's main opponent, the Democratic Party (PD)'s Antonio da Conceicao, looks to have around 30% of the vote, with six other candidates sharing the remainder of the vote between them. Da Conceicao's electoral performance was relatively strong, given the PD's past presidential vote was around 17% (11% in 2007).
Da Conceicao's vote was bolstered by support from outgoing President Taur Matan Ruak's recently established People's Liberation Party (PLP).
It is expected that the parliamentary elections, likely to be held in early July, will continue to approximately reflect the outcome of the presidential elections, as they did in 2007 and 2012. If this is the case, Fretilin and CNRT are likely to reform their governing coalition, and may invite individuals from other parties to take minor ministerial positions. Such a scenario would provide the continued stability and predictability of the current coalition government.
The real question, in such a scenario, will be whether the PD and PLP maintain their own alliance formed for the presidential election, thus providing East Timor a viable parliamentary opposition. The PLP in particular has run a very strong campaign against East Timor's perceived growing corruption and can be expected to do so into the parliamentary elections.
From an Australian perspective, the key issue revolves around East Timor's bid to have a permanent maritime boundary drawn between the two countries consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Lu-Olo has been muted in his comments on the issue.
This may reflect the fact that East Timor's presidency is a largely ceremonial position and is not supposed to be involved in matters of day to day policy. However, given other presidents' willingness to speak beyond the constitutional bounds of the position, Lu-Olo's muteness could be construed as unhelpful to a process that is currently under negotiation between Australia and East Timor.
East Timor has, for the past eight or so years, argued strongly in favour of an absolute median line boundary which includes the lucrative Greater Sunrise liquid natural gas field within its territorial waters. However, East Timor's oil fields, which have so far funded the state's sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund and provided capital for infrastructure development, are beginning to reduce production ahead of depletion.
Due to the international reluctance to develop a liquefied national gas processing facility on East Timor's south coast and the financial clock beginning to tick for its economy, the country may alter its existing Timor Sea claims. Despite its strong position under international law, economic reality may oblige East Timor's next government to consider the options that will be available to help ensure the country remains economically viable.
Flavio Simoes The big day has finally arrived for voters all across Timor-Leste and, for the first time since the restoration of independence in 2002, for Timorese also living in Australia and Portugal.
According to the electoral administration body STAE, there are 747,583 Timorese voters registered to vote during the March 20 presidential election and the July legislative election.
Voting in Timor-Leste is a sacred duty, and the high turnout rates in this small Southeast Asian nation prove that. Timorese will still get up before dawn to walk to their nearest polling station to pierce their ballot paper.
Yet there is a sense of dramatic unease around these elections with the usual Timor-Leste pessimists casting shadows over the country's ability to organize peaceful elections in 2017. These pessimists argue zealously that Timor-Leste will again fall into political crisis, centering their arguments mostly on historical records without deep analysis of the substantial advances or developments of the past 15 years since independence.
The memories of 2006 still pain the Timorese. The public is keenly aware that the country cannot afford to go back to a violent past. Doing so will have dire negative impacts on development efforts and will be another setback for the vigorous effort to democratize Timor-Leste, as dreamed of by the founding parents of the nation.
The National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) is one of the guarantees for smooth elections in 2017. As a preliminary internal and public force, it has grown to be increasingly professional and better-equipped in comparison with its condition during the last two elections.
Today's PNTL has better mechanisms to guarantee its impartiality and immunity from political interference. These include, for example, a series of promotional and career regimes, salary regimes, capacity building programs, more openness to civilian oversight, and restructuring under the security sector reform initiatives undertaken since 2008.
Although the number of PNTL forces is still far from perfect, it has managed to cover all of the critical areas of the country, despite human and technical resource challenges. PNTL currently has Ofisial Polisial Suku-Village Police Officers (OPS) all over the country - one OPS for each of the 442 villages of Timor-Leste. This is a tremendous achievement. These OPS are further supported by sub-municipality and municipality commanders.
OPS have received various kinds of training and support from donor countries, namely New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other national and international non-governmental organizations and partners.
In-line with that training and the philosophy of PNTL (community policing based on a participatory, community-engaging, dialogue approach), they have managed to address many of the latent problems in villages, such as land and property disputes, without resorting to the use of force.
These fundamental changes to PNTL structures and processes have evidently boosted its capability and effectiveness to respond to security concerns as well as earned stronger trust from the community.
This is reflected in people's changed perceptions of PNTL conduct. A 2015 survey commissioned by the Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste found that "while concerns about insecurity still reportedly affect half of the general population, there is a decreasing trend since 2008 when feelings of insecurity peaked." Concern about insecurity has fallen from 73 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2015. Additionally, the survey also found that 99 percent of the general public and 100 percent of community leaders trust the PNTL.
PNTL, too, has been increasingly investing in the professionalism of its special units - not only their operations but, most importantly, their mentality. For instance, apart from capitalizing on capacity building in areas such as crisis and incident management, anti-terrorism, and other combat capacities, PNTL is also investing in their capacity to mediate without force, respect for human rights, respect of women and children, and support for vulnerable people and others.
Since 2014, PNTL has developed its 2014-2018 National Strategic Plan, which will enable it to fully institutionalize and embrace in a more holistic manner its Community Policing VIP methodology: increased Visibility to the public, Involvement with and by the public in combating crimes, and Professionalism in all PNTL conduct. In addition, the maturity of the National Defense Force (F-FDTL) is also another guarantee of stability during the 2017 elections in Timor-Leste. There has been a strong complementarity between PNTL and F-FDTL in the context of national security since the 2006 crisis ended.
Both have been successfully and peacefully cooperating in responding to national security threats, which has been proven with the HALIBUR and HANITA operations, as well as in other coordinated or joint patrols to respond to low-level crimes.
The success in the suco chief (village chief) elections in 2016 bears out the recent and tangible successes of the partnership between both forces.
Clearly, their relations are not always smooth, and it is well known that from time to time there have been PNTL and F-FDTL clashes. However these incidents have been between individuals, and the fact that they have been professionally dealt with in accordance with legal regimes, structures, and official policies, including holding individuals accountable, shows the real professionalism of the two forces.
Furthermore, within F-FDTL alone, there is a very strong mechanism that guarantees their leadership and obedience to the state. One very important test was the polemic surrounding the exoneration of the chief of Defense Forces, an area of disagreement between the government and the president in 2016. Though their leadership endured overwhelming pressure, they maintained their discipline, professionalism, and impartiality to contribute to stability.
In an effort to guarantee these progressive dynamics, Prime Minister Rui de Araujo recently emphasized that there will be zero tolerance for members of security forces who are involved in political parties, let alone illegal groups threatening public order.
One very notable strategic step that Araujo took was to finalize the National Strategic Concept for Defense and Security as the security sector's political document a visionary and orientating document with which to strategically develop Timor-Leste's security forces moving forward.
Among other things, the document carries one very important value: its relation to the historical conscience of Timor-Leste's past. In making sure that any policy produced on security forces should be mindful of Timor-Leste past, it effectively guarantees that destructive history will never occur again.
All the more reason, then, for pessimists should have a bit of faith in Timor-Leste's ability to thrive in the future.
Damien Kingsbury East Timor goes to the polls on today to elect a new president. After this small and still impoverished country's profoundly troubled history, the election should, happily, be relatively unproblematic.
The elections have so far generated limited conflict, with a Fretilin and Democratic Party (PD) riot in Dili's outer west leaving some homes burned. Election rallies have otherwise been noisy but not dangerous.
Competition for the presidency is strong, in some areas fierce, and the outcome will have reverberations for the country's future beyond the president's largely ceremonial role. After being all but guaranteed that the Fretilin presidential candidate, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Gueterres, would win the presidency outright in the first electoral round, there is now an even chance the vote will go to a run-off round.
Lu-Olo has been supported for the presidency by the founder of co-governing party CNRT, Xanana Gusmao. Many in CNRT have been unhappy with Gusmao dismissing his own party member's candidacy for the presidency.
Gusmao's support for Lu-Olo follows his support two years ago for Fretilin's Rui de Araujo as prime minister, when Gusmao stepped down from the post. Gusmao supporting a Fretilin candidate for the presidency after the prime ministership has added insult to injury for the CNRT membership, a consequence of which is that some CNRT members and supporters might stay away from the non-compulsory vote.
Lu-Olo's main rival is PD candidate Antonio da Conceicao, who is also supported by the Popular Liberation Party (PLP) of President Taur Matan Ruak. Working against Conceicao, PD's key founder, Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, died of natural causes two years ago, so PD's support base may have fallen a little.
Conceicao could, however, be a lightning rod for wider anti-Fretilin sentiment. The PLP, meanwhile, has been running a strong anti-corruption campaign and, without regular public opinion polling, seems to be receiving some support for that.
The real question will be, after CNRT joined with Fretilin to form a government of national unity, if PD and PLP can form a continuing alliance, and perhaps have smaller parties such as Fretilin break-away Mudanca gravitate around them. If so, while it is expected that Lu-Olo will be elected president - if not immediately then in the run-off - at least the country will have a viable opposition.
A viable opposition will be necessary if East Timor is not to become a dominant-party state, in which the outcomes of elections are effectively known in advance. Political competition, though in some respects divisive, will be critical if the country is to maintain a sense of public accountability.
With such accountability, East Timor may avoid the myriad problems, such as corruption and financial mismanagement, that have ultimately beset so many other newly independent nations. Without such accountability, such problems, which have already surfaced, may become worse.
Michael Leach The count so far in Timor-Leste's presidential election appears to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN's Francisco 'Lu Olo' Guterres. With some 69% of votes counted, Guterres has received just under 60% of the national vote. Securing a clear majority in the first round will mean a run-off round won't be required for the first time since 2002.
A former guerrilla commander and 24-year veteran of the military resistance to Indonesia's occupation, Lu Olo was running for the third time, having been runner-up to Jose Ramos Horta in 2007, and to the current President Taur Matan Ruak in 2012, who is leaving the position to run in July's parliamentary elections. His chances of success received a massive boost in January when he was endorsed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) leader and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, effectively making his candidacy a joint nomination by the two largest parties, the CNRT and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), who formed a government of national unity in early 2015. On track to double the 30% he received in the first rounds of voting in 2007 and 2012, Lu Olo's success this time around highlights the power of Gusmao to politically anoint the President, having also done so 2007 and 2012. Of particular significance, it looks like Timor-Leste will have its first President to be formally affiliated to a political party since the restoration of independence.
In likely second place, the education minister and secretary-general of the third largest party in parliament (the Democratic Party PD) Antonio da Conceicao has received close to 30% of votes counted, with the other six candidates sharing the remaining 10%. While da Conceicao's supporters had hoped to take the election to a runoff round in April, the combination of the two major political forces in the country (Xanana Gusmao and FRETILIN) appears to have proved too powerful. Also known by his clandestine resistance name 'Kalohan' (cloud), da Conceicao received the support of his own Democratic Party, the smaller party KHUNTO and, significantly, the new party of the current President Ruak, the People's Liberation Party (PLP). Though the PLP initially recommended a conscience vote in the presidential election, Ruak's endorsement of da Conceicao last week suggests that the more competitive parties opposing the current power-sharing executive have drawn some 30% of the vote. As the PLP is yet to formally start its parliamentary campaign, it will take some encouragement from da Conceicao's performance. One note of potential concern to FRETILIN is the relatively strong performance of da Conceicao in the exclave of Oecusse, where FRETILIN has been leading the Special Social Market Economy Zone project known as ZEESM. At the close of counting last night, the Oecussi vote was close to 50-50, suggesting mixed local perceptions of outcomes to date.
While the presidency has a formal role in the formation of government, and holds a partial veto over legislation, executive power lies overwhelmingly with the prime ministership, making the parliamentary elections the more important poll. The likely presidential result suggests the welcome prospect of a reinvigorated parliamentary opposition force, yet it also hints at the real possibility of a 'business as usual' outcome from the July elections. Certainly, opponents to the government's infrastructure spending-led development policies and 'consensus' brand of nationalist politics face an uphill battle. While da Conceicao sought to appeal to a younger generation of East Timorese, comments from the powerful Catholic Church that younger leaders were not yet capable of sustaining a political consensus were a substantial blow. What we know of voting outcomes so far also demonstrates that participation in the resistance to the Indonesia occupation remains the cornerstone of political legitimacy in Timor-Leste, 15 years after the restoration of independence, as a recent Asia Foundation study made clear.
After media reports suggesting Lu Olo's election might herald a change in direction on the Timor Sea negotiation, his campaign has clarified that his position did not diverge from that of the present government. Related reports of testimony to the Australian senate enquiry suggesting that Timor-Leste's termination of the CMATS treaty could 'create a failed state' appear to conflate two separate issues. While the strategy of asserting legal rights to a maritime boundary could indeed see reduced future royalties from Greater Sunrise, a range of positive net outcomes are also possible.
Either way, it is the rate of expenditure of the national petroleum fund that remains the major threat to Timor-Leste's long-term financial viability. The risk therefore has less to do with Timor-Leste's legal strategy, and more to do with the prevailing approach to infrastructure spending, and would remain an issue whether or not current border arrangements change. While the government remains convinced that large-scale infrastructure spending is the road to economic diversification and jobs, Timor-Leste's lively civil society is less convinced, and continues to vigorously debate these issues, which are likely to feature in the parliamentary campaign.
If, as seems most likely, there is no runoff presidential election to contest in April, Lu Olo will assume the presidency on 20 May for a five-year term. The all-important parliamentary elections, scheduled for early July, will determine who forms the next government. The strong support for Lu Olo in yesterday's first round voting suggests the present power-sharing combination of CNRT and FRETILIN remains strongly competitive. President Ruak and his PLP party have the best part of four months to make inroads.
Gobie Rajalingam, Susan Marx Politics in Timor-Leste is always engaging and colorful, and the lead-up to the 2017 presidential election on March 20 is no exception.
With campaigning in full swing, the Timorese variety of consensus politics is on full display. It is a common site these days to see campaign event-bound trucks loaded with supporters of two former opposition parties FRETILIN and CNRT jointly waving the flags of both parties, while dressed in identical t-shirts supporting a single candidate for president.
Perhaps less of a surprise is that the anointed candidate for president is FRETILIN resistance icon, Francisco Guterres (known as Lu-Olo), since local lore here is that it is now "his turn" (a reference to the fact that most of the other iconic resistance leaders including Xanana Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri, Jose Ramos Horta, and Taur Matan Ruak have all either had a stint as president, prime minister, or both). While consensus politics thrives, individual freedom of expression, however, remains threatened.
Since the dawn of independence, the two guiding forces in voting trends have been Xanana Gusmao and the political parties. The sheer power of Xanana's influence was seen in his support of Taur Matan Ruak in 2012, and is no less pronounced in 2017 with his support of Lu-Olo for president. The influence of political parties is also evident in the recent arrest of a prospective voter in the municipality of Oecusse for the simple act of carrying a FRETILIN flag to the campaign event for presidential contender Antonio de Conceicao of the Democratic Party (PD). His arrest was swiftly followed by a joint FRETILIN/CNRT press conference reminding voters that Lu-Olo is the parties' choice for president, and forbiding individuals from carrying party flags to any other events. The resonating message to voters that they should not mistake the right to vote for an individual opportunity to participate in democracy, but rather as an obligation to tow the parties' line.
Early indications are that the parliamentary election and subsequent selection of a prime minister, the ultimate prize, is bound to follow suit. Yet, early hopes were that things might be different this year. The emergence early last year of the new Popular Liberation Party (PLP), espousing democratic principles of "issue-based politics" and "accountability" positioned itself as an opposition to the reigning consensus politics. Yet, even this new approach required the endorsement of a resistance leader to be taken seriously, which in this case, came from current president Taur Matan Ruak. However, the PLP has been unable to make the inroads it aspired to, currently polling at only 4 percent of likely voters in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
So, what will it take for Timor-Leste's politics to shift course? As elsewhere in the world, the notion of intergenerational shift is not a simple one. In Timor-Leste, it is burdened by a commitment by the resistance leaders who feel compelled to relentlessly serve the nation, combined with an unclear understanding of who represents the young generation and whether simply representing the youth is enough. The elders seem to highlight the need for the younger generation to prove themselves, while falling short of mentoring them into leadership sometimes even openly questioning the wisdom of inter-generational transition as recently captured on social media when Mari Alkatiri publicly questioned the notion as "incorrect," "opportunistic," and "naïve" in the absence of political legitimacy.
If the 2017 elections could mark a political shift and gradually start to afford political legitimacy to the next generation, the change couldn't come sooner. The most recent Tatoli! public opinion poll conducted by The Asia Foundation in December 2016, shows an overall downward trend in the outlook of the country, with increasing levels of discontent among younger voters. In 2014, 73 percent of respondents said the country was going in the right direction, while in 2016, 58 percent of respondents indicated the same. For respondents under the age of 25, 80 percent in 2014 identified the country to be moving in the right direction, compared with only 50 percent in 2016.
While the poll shows that there is clearly a great interest in politics (nearly 98% of respondents indicated that they will also vote in the 2017 parliamentary election), and recent years have seen far greater access to political and other information via televised debates and social media, the actual understanding of the issues and programs of parties and candidates and the roles these play on voter behavior, remain limited.
The poll suggests that the electorate does believe that issues are important, with 54 percent of respondents claiming they voted for a party in the 2012 elections based on issues, and not the candidate who represented it. However, this is contradicted when respondents were asked what they held as the most important attribute of a political party: its programs/issues or the party's role in the independence movement. Respondents overwhelmingly (50%) cited the role of the party in the independence movement as the most important attribute, compared to only 22 percent claiming programs and issues as the driving factors for their vote for a party.
Most analysts and Timor watchers concur that the outcome of the presidential election is all but a far-gone conclusion and that the parliamentary election itself holds little chance of any major surprise. Worthwhile to watch out for, though, is whether the discontent among young voters continues to grow, and whether there will be some sort of a tipping point for politics in Timor-Leste. Recent incidences of violence between the ruling consensus and smaller parties do indicate that not all are equally enamored by the consensus. Whether the outcome is a surprise or not, the politics surrounding it will promise to be engaging in true Timor style.
Khoo Ying Hooi Timor-Leste's 15 years of independence have been marked by a mixed performance of progress and crisis. Having emerged from war and internal conflict in the late 1990s, Timor-Leste has a challenging path to get on par with other countries, in particular on issues related to development.
After 15 years of independence, it is time to take stock of how far things have come. The country's presidential election will be held on March 20, with a potential second round of voting in April before the parliamentary election in July, the first such election to be held since the United Nations (UN) Mission departed in 2012.
Eight candidates, including one female candidate, will be contesting the March 20 presidential elections after fulfilling the criteria, including securing enough supporters.
The eight candidates are Amorim Vieira, Angela Freitas, Antonio da Conceicao, Antonio Maher, Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo, Jose Luis Guterres, Luis Alves Tilman, and Jose Antonio Neves. All eight candidates are scheduled to carry out their political campaigns from March 3-17. Voting is scheduled to take place simultaneously on March 20 both inside the country and overseas for Timorese abroad.
Out of a population of approximately 1.2 million, as reported by the Secretariat for Technical and Electoral Administration (STAE) recently, there are over 747,000 registered voters, with a further 1,332 overseas voters expected to take part in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
This upcoming March 20 presidential election is an important test of Timor-Leste's stability. There's reason to be hopeful: the Democracy Index 2016, as published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in January this year, ranked Timor Leste as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia based on five variables electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of the government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Overall, Timor Leste's score was impressive: besides being first in Southeast Asia, it was fifth in Asia and 43rd out of all the countries assessed by the EIU. A December 2016 nationwide poll by the International Republican Institute's (IRI) similarly has generally painted an optimistic lens on the country's future prospects.
However, as Southeast Asia's youngest country, Timor-Leste remains a complicated and paradoxical case. As an oil-rich country, the relationships between democracy and development remain far from universally positive. Natural resources undoubtedly play a crucial role in the economy of many countries and it is even more important for a post-conflict small state like Timor-Leste. However, whether the on-balance contribution to development is positive or negative remains a contested debate. In this regard, Timor-Leste faces the challenge of balancing between resource dependence and democracy.
Looking back over the past decade, Timorese politics have been thus far notable for their dynamic political competition. Since the restoration of independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has had three sets of highly competitive elections that have been universally recognized as free and fair. Even when tensions were high in the wake of the 2006 political crisis, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2007, albeit with several incidents.
As stipulated in the Timor-Leste constitution, the third objective of the state shall be "to defend and guarantee political democracy and participation of the people in the resolution of national problems." Democracy has a broad meaning; it encompasses rule of law, independence, freedom, self-reliance, and most importantly, the political will to achieve and keep the above values. But that spirit risks running low after 15 years of independence thanks to the continuous domestic challenges that impact the Timorese people's daily lives.
Timor-Leste has tremendous opportunity for development. After going through such a traumatic independence struggle, the people's expectations are high. While the constitution stipulates that the state will be institutionalized at distinct levels, the issue is its actual competency and resources are not adequately addressed.
What remains missing is the promotion of the decentralization of political power, aimed at empowering the Timorese people at the grassroots level for self-governance and self-reliance, so as to enable them to build their capacity for socio-economic development. Having said that, ahead of the much-anticipated presidential election on March 20, renewed efforts on democratic decentralization should be emphasized by the presidential candidates so that marginalized groups can be empowered.
In this regard, Timorese political leaders should find solutions to move toward sustainable democracy in the midst of challenging conditions such as poverty, land right issues, illiteracy, low employment, corruption, and cronyism. Ahead of the upcoming presidential election, it is crucial that Timorese political leaders to seize upon the existing popular goodwill to address the issues of greatest concern to citizens, and take steps to address the complex issue of linking democracy and economic reforms for the country's still-young population.