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Politics

East Timor votes in second general election in 10 months

PM of short-lived previous government confident; voters hope for stability

Voters queue at a polling station in Dili several hours after the 7 a.m. start of voting in the May 12 parliamentary elections. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

DILI, East Timor -- Voting took place today in East Timor to choose 65 members of parliament, who Timorese hope will form a stable administration after a year of political uncertainty and the quick collapse of a short-lived minority government.

"The winner is already here in front you," said Mari Alkatiri, leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin, speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review after voting shortly after 7 a.m. at a school near Dili's picturesque waterfront.

Alkatiri was prime minister of a short-lived government formed after the last election in July 2017. But his coalition held just 30 of the 65 parliamentary seats and its minority government soon fell, after the Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition coalition declined to support Fretilin's program for government.

The main AMP party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, led by independence hero Xanana Gusmao, was in power from 2007-17.The AMP's combined strength makes it the more likely winner, but Alkatiri said Fretilin hopes to win more than 30 seats in today's vote, which closed at 3 p.m. Vote counting is still ongoing. A rough idea of the outcome may be known by later tonight or early tomorrow, but full results may not be known for several days, partly because some paper ballots have to be transported across remote mountainous terrain in the small half-island country of 1.3 million people.

Mari Alkatiri, who led a short-lived government as prime minister after the 2017 elections, casts his vote at a polling station in Farol, Dili. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Gusmao, Alkatiri's main opponent and also a former prime minister,  complained to media that there had been "irregularities" prior to voting day, amid rumors of parties handing out rice as an inducement to voters.

Gusmao arrived at his party headquarters shortly after the close of voting but declined to speak to the waiting media. AMP representatives told a brief press conference that several supporters' houses had been burned down in Oecusse, the westernmost district of East Timor. One of them, Roberto Caetano de Sousa, said, "We are identifying these incidents. ... [We] need to check in the districts."

East Timor independence icon and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao appears at his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party headquarters shortly after voting closed. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Gusmao is an iconic figure to many Timorese and returned to Dili to a hero's welcome in March, after successfully negotiating an agreement with Australia on a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea. The deal should in time see East Timor earn billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues from the Greater Sunrise field there.

Around three quarters of a million people were eligible to vote out of the population of 1.3 million, and turnout is expected to be at least 70%.

However, around two-thirds of Timorese are under 30 years of age, meaning that there is a widening generation gap between the country's leadership and the majority of the population. Gusmao, Alkatiri and most of the country's political elite are veterans of the independence struggle against Indonesia, which invaded in 1975 after the previous Portuguese colonizers withdrew. East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999, after an estimated 200,000 people died during the Indonesian occupation.

Voters waited in long queues at polling stations around Dili on May 12. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

East Timor's elites have discussed handing over control to politicians in their 40s and 50s, a process that was to begin after the election in 2012. Asked what his priorities would be after the election, Alkatiri said, "We need clean water, infrastructure, housing ... and to hand over to the next generation."

For several years before the 2017 election, East Timor had a de facto national unity government made up of members of Fretilin and Gusmao's allies. And though Timorese politics have become more fractious since last year's inconclusive election, Fretilin has said it will ask its opponents to join it in forming a new government, if it wins enough seats itself.

"That is the policy," said Alkatiri. But asked if he would include Xanana Gusmao among the invitees, he said, "I prefer not comment on this now."

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