Timor-Leste Prepares for Presidential Election

15 March 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme

Background

The first round of the Timor-Leste presidential election is due to take place on 20 March with a possible second round scheduled for 20 April. In total, there are eight candidates running for President including three independents. Aside from the independent candidates, Francisco Guterres from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor party (FRETILIN) is expected to do well having received the majority of the votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential election only to have lost in the second round against current president José Maria Vasconcelos (more popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak).

Comment          

This will be the third public presidential election since Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002 and the first since UN peacekeeping forces left in 2012. The previous presidential election, also in 2012, was described by some analysts as ‘remarkably calm’ compared to the 2007 election. The 2012 elections, however, were not without incident with the offices of the National Electoral Commission (Comissão Nacional de Eleições, or CNE) and the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration firebombed, rocks thrown at a politician’s campaign headquarters and the burning of two homes and a number vehicles. It is difficult to judge how this year’s polls will play out, although it is worthwhile to note that the security sector faces ongoing challenges. Approximately 746,251 people are expected to cast their votes, which is significantly higher than the 489,933 who voted in the first round of the 2012 elections.

The actions of the elected government will hold major ramifications for the future of Timor-Leste. As noted in a recent Strategic Analysis Paper, the economic future of Timor-Leste is fragile with oil revenues, the primary source of the government’s income, running out. To offset this, the government should look towards expanding the country’s non-oil sector, but that will require vast amounts of money to be poured into infrastructure. That is where problems arise. The money needed infrastructure expansion will have to come from the Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund which was established to save and invest the oil and gas revenues while still allowing the government to withdraw set amounts each year, thus permitting the fund’s balance to keep growing. High government expenditure has led to consistent over-withdrawals from the now-depleting fund that will only be worsened by increased expenditure on much-needed infrastructure. As a result, the fund will rapidly shrink, the Timor-Leste Government a limited amount of time in which to expand the non-oil sector by three to four times its current size – a seemingly impossible task. The steps taken by the next Timor-Leste Government over in the next five years will have a significant impact on the long-term economic development of the country.

A lifeline for Timor-Leste is the $30 to $50 billion worth of oil and gas situated in the waters of the Greater Sunrise Area. Timor-Leste is currently in negotiations with Australia to finalise a maritime boundary which will determine the ownership of the oil and gas deposits contained in it and a potential revenue split.

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