Asia's most Catholic nation heads to polls

Impoverished East Timorese are looking for leaders to alleviate grinding poverty and wean nation off oil and gas dependence
Asia's most Catholic nation heads to polls

This picture taken in Dili, Timor Leste on July 18 shows supporters of the CNRT party (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) participating in a campaign in Dili. Parliamentary elections take place on July 22. (Photo by Valentino Dariel Sousa/AFP)

Voters in the fledgling Southeast Asian nation, Timor-Leste, head to the polls this weekend hoping to elect a government that can alleviate poverty, healthcare and education issues that have stalled the tiny nation's progress.

Twenty-one political parties are vying for 65 parliamentary seats amid widespread concern over successive government's failure to use the predominantly Catholic nation's petroleum fund wisely in developing non oil and gas sectors, and creating jobs.

More than 740,000 registered voters are eligible to cast ballots on July 22 to determine the next prime minister, following a presidential election in March which saw former resistance fighter Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Guterres become head of state.

While the presidency is somewhat symbolic, the office holder is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has power to veto certain legislation

Former president and prime minister Xanana Kayrala Gusmao's CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) party remains the front runner, with Gusmao saying he will seek another term as premier if the party wins.

Next come Fretilin, the party of the former resistance movement fighting for independence, and the newly established People's Liberation Party (PLP) founded by former president Taur Matan Ruak.

"Choose whom you think can side with the people, who can improve health, sanitation, education, agriculture, as well as provide clean water," Bishop Basilio do Nascimiento of Baucau, chairman of the Timor-Leste Bishops Conference, said in Dili.

"Don't choose whom you believe only give empty promises during campaigns. Vote for the ones who have honest views about society," he said.

Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony taken over by force by Indonesia in 1975, and wracked by conflict until its independence in 2002.

The present government is a coalition between CNRT and Fretilin led by Fretilin's Rui Maria de Araujo, one that observers said could still probably continue for the next few years unless Gusmao's party achieves outright victory by gaining just three more seats to reach 33.

"I'm confident we will have outright victory in this election and will lead the government once again," Gusmao said during the campaign in Dili on July 18.

Sisto do Santos, an activist from the National Alliance Timor-Leste that monitors campaigns, said the country's political situation is often determined by leading figures and the power within parties.

Fretilin — the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor — has influential leaders such as former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, President Francisco Lu-Olo Guterres, and current PM, Rui Maria de Araujo.

"But some of Fretilin's voter bases in some districts have moved to support Xanana's CNRT," Do Santos told ucanews.com.

There is also another figure, former president Jose Maria Vasconcelos or Taur Matan Ruak who has been campaigning on anti corruption and vying to become prime minister.

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Matan Ruak in his last campaign said that during his presidency he approved an overall budget of US$8 billion. But much of it appeared to disappear due to widespread corruption.

"People often complain to me … they still live in houses made of leaves, with no clean water, and poor sanitation, and malnutrition have become part of their lives," he said.

Matan Ruak has also highlighted a lack of infrastructure, electricity, health facilities and education for children in remote villages. He said CNRT and Fretilin-run governments have consistently failed to address these issues.

"It's enough. Now it's time for the PLP to lead and free society from corruption, nepotism, discrimination," he said.

Abilio Araujo, a co-founder of Fretilin in 1975, said he now supports Taur Matan Ruak to become prime minister because he has vast experience and knows what the people need. 

"I believe he is the right person to lead Timor-Leste in the next few years," said Araujo.

Juvinal Diaz, executive director of Luta Hamutuk, a Dili-based nonprofit group focusing on economic justice, said the next government should avoid the mistakes of the existing government, which has failed to create jobs amid rampant unemployment.

He pointed to Tasi Mane, a petroleum infrastructure project, and various other enterprises in which the government and employers hire a mostly skilled labor force, the majority of whom are foreigners. 

"This government does not have good policies to solve issues of unemployment, poverty, infrastructure, and justice," said Diaz.

Timor-Leste has some 1.2 million people, of whom 97 percent are Catholic.

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