East Timor vote highlights young nation's uneven progress

In this Tuesday, July 17, 2017 supporters of CNRT Party have their face and body painted with the party's colors during a campaign rally in Dili, East Timor. Almost two dozen parties are contesting parliamentary elections in East Timor on the weekend that are likely to return independence heroes to power despite increasing frustration in the young democracy with lack of economic progress and warnings the country could be bankrupt within a decade. (AP Photo/Kandhi Barnez)
In this Tuesday, July 17, 2017 photo, former East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao speaks to supporters during a CNRT Party campaign rally in Dili, East Timor. Almost two dozen parties are contesting parliamentary elections in East Timor on the weekend that are likely to return independence heroes to power despite increasing frustration in the young democracy with lack of economic progress and warnings the country could be bankrupt within a decade. (AP Photo/Kandhi Barnez)

DILI, East Timor — Almost two dozen parties are contesting parliamentary elections in East Timor this weekend that are likely to return independence heroes to power despite frustration in the young democracy with lack of economic progress and warnings the country could be bankrupt within a decade.

East Timorese hope the elections will repeat the success of a peaceful vote for the largely ceremonial role of president in March, which was the country's first election without U.N. supervision since peacekeepers left in 2012. Political stability is particularly crucial for the country, which officially gained independence only 15 years ago, because it is facing a financial time bomb.

Oil revenues, which finance more than 90 percent of government spending, are rapidly dwindling and the country's $16 billion sovereign wealth fund could be empty within 10 years with the government's annual withdrawals exceeding its investment returns, according to La'o Hamutuk, an East Timorese research institute.

An opinion poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy in the developing world, showed almost half of East Timorese surveyed in May were undecided about which party they would vote for on Saturday. But the current cast of leaders, whose popularity owes much to their history as fighters in East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia, are unlikely to be unseated.

Parliament is currently dominated by a national unity coalition led by Fretilin, the party of Prime Minister Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo, with CNRT, the party of resistance leader and former president Xanana Gusmao, who remains highly influential. Seats are allocated to parties based on the percentage of votes won if they poll higher than 4 percent.

The Popular Liberation Party, a new political force led by former president and resistance fighter Taur Matan Ruak, is campaigning on a platform of better access to education, anti-corruption and compulsory military service to address high youth unemployment and may pick up a few seats.

Campaigning, which was punctuated by parties trading accusations of vote buying, ended on Wednesday without major incident.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation. 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 of Timor.

Today, the country of 1.3 million people, still faces poverty with many people lacking clean water and sanitation. Unemployment is high and young people are increasingly looking abroad for work. The top and perennial concern of voters in the IRI survey was the poor condition of roads. They also believed government corruption was worsening.

"Here in Dili it is very difficult to find jobs," said Agustinho Lopo, who like other young Timorese hopes he can find work in South Korea.

To develop the economy, leaders have focused on big ticket infrastructure projects such as airports, a highway and a special economic zone funded from the dwindling $16 billion Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund. It was established in 2005 from revenues from the now almost-dry Bayu-Undan oil field. The field forecast to end production in 2021.

In an acknowledgement that progress is uneven, both Fretilin and CNRT have vowed during the campaign that the benefits of their development plans will be spread more widely.

As the country's funds run down, development of the potentially lucrative "Greater Sunshine" oil and gas field in the Timor Sea is stalled by a boundary dispute between East Timor and Australia and the insistence of top East Timorese leaders that the processing plant be located in East Timor despite industry experts saying that would make development of the field financially unviable.

In March, an Australian parliamentary committee heard testimony from an expert who predicted East Timor could become a failed state without revenue from Sunrise, outraging East Timorese leaders despite similar warnings coming from other quarters in recent years.

East Timorese, however, are still optimistic about the future. The IRI survey showed 68 percent believed that East Timor would be better off in a year's time.

Ano Peji Colo, a student at the National University of Timor, said East Timor needs other industries, not only oil and gas, to compete with other Southeast Asian nations.

"I really hope that the new government will invest more in the economy. The government shouldn't depend on oil and gas because oil and gas is not sustainable," he said.

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Wright reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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