The Long Road

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Voters cast their ballots in East Timor’s presidential polls over the weekend, the Southeast Asian country’s fifth election since it gained independence from Indonesia about 20 years ago, the Associated Press reported.

The election featured 13 candidates, including two former independence leaders – one former president and one incumbent. Four women took part, the highest number of females ever running for office there.

Polls show that former President Jose Ramos-Horta of the National Congress of the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) had a lead over incumbent Francisco Guterres of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor party (Fretilin).

Both candidates and their parties have accused each other of causing a yearslong political crisis that resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020 after the government repeatedly failed to pass a budget.

Since then, Ruak has remained in a caretaker position and his administration has been operating without an annual budget amid the coronavirus pandemic. It has mainly relied on monthly injections from its sovereign fund.

East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 but the tiny nation has been plagued by poverty, unemployment and corruption since then.

The United Nations estimates that almost half of the population lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day and half of all children under the age of five suffer poor physical and mental development as a result of malnutrition.

Oil revenues, which finance more than 90 percent of government spending, have been quickly decreasing. Analysts predict that the country’s estimated $19 billion sovereign wealth fund will be depleted within a decade as yearly withdrawals outpace investment returns.

They noted that the next leader will also have to address income inequality in East Timor, where the wealthiest earn more than 42 percent of the national income and the bottom half only about 16 percent.

The results are expected on Thursday and the new president will be sworn in on May 20, the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia.

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