East Timor set for presidential runoff election in April

DILI, East Timor (AP) — East Timor is headed for a runoff presidential election after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta failed to secure more than 50% of the vote despite a commanding lead over a fellow former independence fighter, incumbent President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres.

Ramos-Horta received 46.6% of the vote in last week’s election and Guterres got 22.1%, according to a tally announced Sunday by the National Election Commission.

A runoff is scheduled for April 19, and the winner will take office on May 20, the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s bloody independence from Indonesia.

Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s president from 2007 to 2012, and Guterres have traded accusations of triggering a yearslong political paralysis.

The president is responsible for naming the government and dissolving parliament. In 2018, Guterres refused to swear in nine Cabinet nominees from the National Congress of the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as CNRT, a party led by former prime minister and independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who backed Ramos-Horta’s run for president.

Guterres is from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by its local acronym Fretilin, which had led resistance to Indonesian rule.

Fretilin said that Ramos-Horta is unfit for president, accusing him of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006, when dozens were killed as political rivalries turned into open conflict on the streets of Dili.

The latest impasse led to the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020. But he agreed to stay on until a new government is formed and to oversee the battle against the coronavirus pandemic with a $250 million war chest. His government has operated without an annual budget and has relied on monthly injections from its sovereign fund savings, called the Petroleum Fund.

The election results still need to be vetted by the court of appeals, said Odete Maria Belo, a commissioner who read out the announcement. She said the commission invited each candidate to appeal the vote count within 24 hours.

The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia for a quarter century and gained independence after a U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1999. Indonesia’s military responded with scorched earth attacks that devastated the East Timorese half of the island of Timor.

East Timor’s transition to a democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption. Its economy is reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues.

Turnout in the May 19 election, the fifth since independence, was 77.26%, or 6% higher than in 2017, the election commission said.

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