The parade of cars and motorbikes and cacophony of slogans blasted from megaphones were a welcome sort of chaos compared with past election tension in the northern district of Manatutu in Timor-Leste, which on 17 March is holding its second presidential vote since independence.
Attending a recent presidential rally, 32-year-old Araujo Manuel said: “We don’t want a repeat of 2006.” That year, disgruntled soldiers staged a mutiny in the capital, Dili, which left five people dead, caused tens of thousands of residents to flee the city and renewed questions about the stability of the country in its early years of independence after 24 years of violent occupation by Indonesia.
The threat of renewed violence hung over the 2007 presidential election but this year’s has a markedly different tone, one the government is hoping will help the country no longer be classified as “post-conflict” by the UN and a fragile state by donors.
“We have seen a clean campaign that’s been virtually free of violence. Every candidate has committed him or herself to peace,” Finn Reske-Nielson, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), told IRIN.
The UN peacekeeping and governance-assistance mission, which includes 1,280 police, was set up after the 2006 flare-up and is scheduled to conclude at the end of this year.
As tensions ease, voters say they want leaders to deliver more than peace and stability.
Manuel said recent presidential candidates’ visits to his district were a rare opportunity for him to connect, if only from a distance, with the country’s power brokers. “Usually, there is no access to information about the government in the rural areas.”
Problems plaguing the overwhelmingly rural country, such as poor agricultural assistance, one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition as well as poor job creation, have been overlooked in favour of higher-profile infrastructure projects, said Augustinho Suares, 30, who was also attending the rally in Manatutu’s district capital, some 60km of crumbling roads away from Dili.
“The government has spent a lot of money but we haven’t seen it here.”
The country earns tens of millions of dollars monthly in oil and gas sales. Almost the entire state budget is drawn from this wealth. Nearly half of this year’s US$1.67 billion budget is earmarked for roads, electricity, and oil and gas infrastructure.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta is one of four leading candidates in a field of 12. Others include Francisco Guterres, better known as “Lu Olo”, who heads Fretelin, the party with the most seats in parliament; recently retired army chief Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak; and parliamentary speaker Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo.
All four played prominent roles in their country’s independence struggle against Indonesian occupation. Some 180,000 people died under Indonesia’s brutal 1975-1999 rule.
The presidency was initially designed to be mostly a ceremonial role, but Ramos-Horta, and his predecessor, current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, boosted the post’s power to influence domestic and international affairs.
For the country’s young, struggling with poor job opportunities, promises to boost employment resonate. “We like the candidates who talk about jobs,” said 17-year-old Noel Francisco, who attended Lu Olo’s rally in Manatutu. “Any job would be okay but no jobs are available to us now,” he said. Various agency estimates put unemployment at close to 20 percent in cities.
The country’s dependence on oil and gas money – as well as how that money is spent – concerns civil society groups. The state budget has more than doubled from $650 million in 2009 to over $1.67 billion this year.
Less than 11 percent of this year’s state budget is reserved for health and education.
The UK-based NGO Save the Children ranks Timor-Leste among the worst countries worldwide for child healthcare.
Just 1.5 percent of this year’s state budget is reserved for agriculture, which is the main means of survival for most of the population.