Dark clouds hung over this young nation the day before a much-anticipated presidential election on March 17. With jittery analysts playing up the potential for conflict, they appeared a powerful portent of the way polls could play out in a tiny country known for its far larger history of violence.
But more than a week after the polls closed peacefully, and ballot counting wrapped up with little contestation, East Timor appears to have cleared the first hurdle toward standing on its own.
The country, which is grindingly poor, has been under the watchful eyes of a United Nations’ stabilization mission since factional fighting between police and security forces broke out in 2006, prior to the last election, killing 37 people and driving more than 100,000 from their homes.
That conflict came just four years after UN forces left for the first time, having governed the country in the rocky years after a bloody vote for separation from Indonesia in 1999.
Now, two men remain in the contest for president, which will go to a second round in mid-April. In the lead is Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, head of the hardcore leftist Fretilin Party, followed closely by Jose Maria Vasconcelos, a former armed forces commander popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak (Two Sharp Eyes) for his time spent devising military strategy against a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation.
Both are decidedly different from incumbent, Jose Ramos-Horta, who was knocked out in the first round. The Nobel laureate who led the resistance against Indonesia from overseas spent much of his presidency advocating for the country on the international stage. Some political observers say Mr. Ramos-Horta’s lackluster campaign, which paled against the flashy posters and flag-waving parades of his competitors, hurt his re-election chances. So did an apparent rift with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, whose endorsement went to Mr. Ruak.
Others say poor support for Ramos-Horta owes largely to discontent with the country’s development during his five-year term.
After years of increasing alienation from the government under a president many respected but saw as out of touch with East Timor’s reality, people want a new man “driving” the country, says Nelson Belo, the director of Fundasaun Mahein, a local organization focused on defense and security issues.
Though the post of president is largely ceremonial, whoever wins will play a key role in forming the government after parliamentary elections in June. If those go well, the UN peacekeepers and a force of 460 Australian and New Zealand troops will pack up and go home – for good, they say.
“It’s really important to the Timorese that they say goodbye,” says Edward Rees, a long-time Timor observer. “People haven’t gotten value for the money spent in the past five years.”
In some ways they have. The country is now less violent and dysfunctional than it was, but long-standing divisions remain unresolved and many of the long-term reforms needed to improve the rule of law and ensure balanced development have stalled.
“We are experiencing growth without employment, relying on petroleum and importing everything,” says Fidelis Magalhaes, the sharp, young leader of Ruak’s campaign, referring to a billion-dollar petroleum fund that supports 90 percent of the country’s ballooning budget.
Both sides say the country needs a president with a vision. Foreign advisers say it needs to take responsibility for its economic and political development. What seems to matter to voters, however, is visible change, and when they go to the polls again in April, they’ll likely be voting for a president who they hope can deliver.
* Editor's note: A quotation was removed from the story because it violated the terms of the interview.