An already bitter Timor-Leste election set for May 12

Official campaigning commences after Easter in the mainly Catholic nation with its ageing political lions ready for one more fight
An already bitter Timor-Leste election set for May 12

Timorese children at a feeding program run by Jesuits whose future will be affected by upcoming elections. (Photo by Michael Sainsbury/

The people of Timor-Leste will go to the polls on May 12, less than 10 months after last July's five-yearly election in a contest that is likely to be the last between the nation's first generation of now ageing leaders in a contest certain to be the most bitter the 15-year-old nation has seen.

Primarily the election pits former revolutionary force Fretilin led by the country's inaugural Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri who was forced to step down in 2006 after being elected in 2002, against former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao, the country's talisman and his CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) party that has formed a coalition with a raft of other parties.

The July 2017 election results were declared on Aug. 1. The Fretilin party later formed a government, with the support of the Democratic party that saw another partner desert the group at the last minute leaving it as a minority government that was unable to get it's vital economic program needed to prepare a budget bill, through the opposition dominated parliament.

President Francisco Guterres Lu'olo stated in his decree that "it has become necessary to proceed to set the date for the election of the deputies of the national parliament, and after hearing the views of the parties that had parliamentary seats" would set the date of the election for May 12. Campaigning officially begins on April 10 but unofficial pitching for votes has been underway for about a month after it became clear a fresh poll would be called.

The date adds at least some certainty to the country's gridlocked politics, coming after months of political and constitutional stalemate. Lu'Olo has come under criticism for not acting at an earlier date, especially given that the minority government was unable to get its budget and program by the deadline of Nov. 15.

Criticism was also levelled at the president for not intervening when the president of the parliament (the speaker) and the prime minister manoeuvred to ensure parliament did not sit, as required by law, avoiding a no confidence motion in the government that would have seen a resolution to the impasse months earlier.

If that motion had been debated and passed with the support of the majority opposition the president would have been required to appoint the opposition as government rather than proceed to an early election. In its short history, Timor-Leste has always had an inclusive government — coming off decades of armed conflict both domestically and against Indonesia who invaded and occupied it only nine days after independence from colonial master Portugal in 1975.

On all previous occasions clashes over power have been resolved by forming governments of inclusion, rather than through a rerun of the competitive process of elections. Former president Taur Matan Ruak stated in January "that the practice of calling an early election is unknown in Timor-Leste" and the decision to do so has further deepened the political divide between the former major party coalition partners and regular voters. Commentators also appear to be split on the move which leaves the country without any budget for much needed major capital works until a new government can be for formed.

Fretilin is set to face a broad coalition of forces in May's election, including the People's Liberation Party and KHUNTO and up to 15 smaller parties who will all be stumping for the votes of abut 730 000 voters.

The last election was the first conducted by Asia's newest and poorest nation to be conducted solely by the country without United Nations and there were some concerns about results from more remote polling stations.

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