East Timor’s citizens were at the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, hoping the most competitive election in the history of Southeast Asia’s youngest country will end a protracted political impasse.
Voters lined up outside polling stations at the crack of dawn to choose between a record 16 candidates led by two revolutionary heroes in incumbent Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres and former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta.
Following temperature checks and hand sanitisation, they were ushered to the polling booths where they dabbed their fingers in ink to show they had voted. Several mothers carrying babies were among those eager to elect a new president.
“I hope the leader that I have voted for can pay more attention to the education, infrastructure and farming sectors. I am very happy that I’ve voted for a candidate based on my consciousness,” 35-year-old Filomena Tavares Maria told AFP outside the polls that opened at 7 a.m. (2200 GMT) and are due to shut at 3 pm.
Preliminary results are expected later today but an official result will be announced sometime next week.
First hammered by the pandemic, East Timor’s economy took another hit last year when Cyclone Seroja struck, killing at least 40 people on its half of the island and transforming communities into wastelands of mud and uprooted trees.
Political tensions between the two largest parties – Guterres’ Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the National Congress of the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste (CNRT) – have also risen in the past four years, leading to a political deadlock that has seen the government fail to pass a budget.
Sidalia dos Santos said she hoped the new president could lead an economic recovery.
“I hope the candidate that I voted for can improve our lives, especially in the health and education sector,” the 22-year-old student said.
Outside the polling station, Ramos-Horta said the financial situation would be his main priority: “The most important thing for me is to strengthen the stability and build a better economy.”
Earlier in the week, he said he felt compelled to return to politics because Guterres had “breached the constitution” and overstepped his presidential role.
But Guterres, a 67-year-old former guerilla fighter, said he was confident the elections would bring him a second term.
“I believe I will win this election and people will reconfirm their rights through the election. If I am re-elected, I will keep defending the democratic rights of our country and create sustainable development.”
Around 860,000 were registered to vote at the country’s 1,500 polling stations.