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International relations

East Timor heads for election after bad-tempered campaign

Vote comes after landmark maritime boundary deal with Australia

East Timorese are set to vote in parliamentary elections on May 12.   © Reuters

DENPASAR, Indonesia -- For the second time in less than a year, voters in East Timor will head to polling stations on May 12 to decide who will run the second smallest country in Southeast Asia.

The last elections held in July 2017 left Mari Alkariri of the Fretilin party, or the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, as prime minister leading a shaky minority government. As its name suggests, Fretilin is made up of activists and fighters who opposed Indonesia's occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999.

Fretilin won the most seats then, with 23, but the coalition it cobbled together was vulnerable, holding just 30 out of a total 65 seats in the Dili parliament. Unsurprisingly, Alkatiri's government fell after the pointedly named Parliamentary Majority Alliance opposition refused to support his proposed budget.

East Timor's proportional voting system usually makes it difficult for a single party to win a majority, especially given that the flourishing democracy fielded more than 20 parties in last year's election.

Only eight parties are on the ballot paper this weekend and alliances seem to be more sharply defined than last year. "Another minority government is certainly possible, but it seems less likely than 2017 because so many parties have formed pre-election coalitions," said Michael Leach of Swinburne University and head of the Timor-Leste Studies Association. The official name for East Timor is the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, center, after his swearing-in ceremony in Dili, East Timor on Sept. 15, 2017.   © Reuters

Before Alkatiri's government, the previous administration was formed of representatives from most of the main parties. While that system was criticized by many for leaving the country without an effective opposition, some said "rule-by-consensus" was more suitable for East Timor than a "winner-takes-all" outcome.

Politics has since become more adversarial, however. This year's campaigns have been marred by vitriol, unheard of since elections in mid-2007. In August that year, riots greeted the announcement that Fretilin would cede control to a government led by Xanana Gusmao, another resistance fighter who was a political prisoner in Jakarta during Indonesian rule. 

That 2007 vote came just over a year after a near civil war, when police and army factions fought on the streets of Dili and broad east-west divisions emerged in the tiny state. Early the following year, rebels tried to assassinate Jose Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, both former presidents and prime ministers. 

Last weekend, the still-popular Gusmao called for calm after 18 supporters of his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party were injured, allegedly by Fretilin supporters. He told party colleagues not to respond to what he deemed provocation during campaigning in the east of East Timor, a Fretilin stronghold. Observers such as the U.S.-based International Republican Institute have reported that the campaign so far has otherwise been peaceful.

Previously allied with Gusmao, Ramos-Horta is supporting Fretilin this time, praising Alkatiri who he said "has articulated a very convincing vision and program on sustainable development."

Xanana Gusmao, a former president of East Timor, addressing supporters of his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction.   © Reuters

Ramos-Horta had previously criticized Gusmao's governments for spending heavily on infrastructure projects and overlooking health and education.

Gusmao's stature as the leader of the country's independence movement ensured he retained his role as the lead Timorese representative in the maritime negotiations after last year's elections. He returned to Dili to a hero's welcome in March after agreeing a deal that month with Australia over maritime borders in the Timor Sea.

That "landmark" agreement, as it was described by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has not featured much on the hustings, however, except during the early days of the campaign a month ago. "Partly because all parties supported the outcome, it was not easy to turn to a partisan purpose," said Swinburne University's Leach.

Establishing the sea boundary will mean that East Timor can expect to get either 70% or 80% of the revenue from the Greater Sunrise gas field in the Timor Sea, exploitation of which had been delayed pending the boundary agreement.

Arrangements are yet to be confirmed on extracting and processing the submarine hydrocarbons, with East Timor holding out for a deal that will allow it to pipe the gas to its southern coast for processing there.

East Timor's $1.8 billion economy is about a sixth the size of Brunei's, another small and oil-dependent Southeast Asian country. The Greater Sunrise field could offer an economic lifeline to a government dependent on fast-depleting hydrocarbons for most of its budget.

While relying on energy resources for government expenditure, East Timor also hopes to develop sectors such as coffee and tourism. Despite its natural beauty and relative proximity to wealthy Australia, visitor numbers remain in the tens of thousands.

A small country that regained its independence, under United Nations tutelage, in 2002, East Timor's land area is slightly smaller than that of the smallest of Japan's four main islands, Shikoku. Its 1.3 million population ranks between those of Laos and Brunei, currently the two least populated member-states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

East Timor's application to join the bloc is being discussed by current members, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the end of the April 25-28 ASEAN summit in the city-state. "Singapore's position is, we look forward to Timor Leste meeting the requirements to be able to be a member and that is something which is to be assessed and which we are happy to work with Timor Leste in order to make sure that they are able to meet those requirements," Lee said.

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