Dili, East Timor—People across East Timor went to the polls on Tuesday to choose either a Nobel laureate or a former guerrilla fighter—the incumbent president—as their next leader.
Frontrunner Jose Ramos-Horta has pledged to break a longstanding deadlock between the two main political parties in Southeast Asia’s youngest country should he win the run-off election against President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres.
“If I win … I will hold a dialogue with political parties, including (Guterres’) Fretilin, so they can work together to maintain stability and peace in Timor-Leste,” the Nobel peace prize winner told journalists Tuesday, holding aloft a finger stained purple after casting his vote.
Former guerilla leader Guterres, meanwhile, promised “to ensure national stability, and to adhere to the mission as president of the republic, which is inseparable from the constitution”, at a polling station in the capital Dili.
Both candidates have pledged to respect the election results regardless of the outcome.
The poll is a rematch of a 2007 election won handily by Ramos-Horta, a former revolutionary hero.
Nearly 860,000 of East Timor’s 1.3 million citizens are eligible to vote, and ballot counting could take several days.
Ramos-Horta was dominant in the election’s first round on March 19, winning 46 percent of votes versus President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres’ 22 percent, but failed to secure the needed majority.
Participation across the nation reached 77 percent as voters chose between 16 candidates.
The winner will take office for five years from May 20 — the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, which occupied the former Portuguese colony for 24 years.
The election is seen as a chance to reset a political deadlock between the National Congress of the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) and Guterres’ Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin).
Guterres, 67, was elected as the country’s leader in 2017 with the support of former rebel Xanana Gusmao, the country’s first president and current CNRT leader.
But Gusmao has this time thrown his party’s weight behind Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1996 for his efforts towards ending the conflict in East Timor and was the main spokesperson of the independence movement.
The 72-year-old, who survived an assassination attempt in 2008, served as the country’s first prime minister before his presidential term from 2007 to 2012. He came out of retirement to challenge Guterres after accusing him of violating the constitution.
The president has refused to endorse CNRT ministers since 2018, plunging the country into political paralysis.
Ramos-Horta indicated he could dissolve the parliament if elected to end the deadlock.
In the 2007 presidential election, Ramos-Horta won by 69 percent while Guterres gained 31 percent of the votes.
The tiny nation is still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on its economy.
Speaking to AFP outside a polling station, university student Lizia Bahkita de Araujo, 27, said she hoped whoever won would focus on education.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, students faced a difficult situation because their classes were moved online, and it did not go well because of the bad internet,” de Araujo said, adding jobs for the country’s young were also a pressing concern.
According to the World Bank, 42 percent of the population lives in poverty.