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East Timor’s calm ahead of presidential elections

The dog was sleeping, its head on its paws, in the middle of the road leading from the airport. As we approached in a four-wheel-drive, it looked up, gauged the situation and put its head back on its paws and closed its eyes. This sleeping dog was let lie.

Apart from horrific moments of violence and destruction, East Timor has otherwise been a pretty laid back place, as it is now. The pigs that used to wander the streets just outside of the main commercial precinct are only a little less common than they once were. Yellow taxis ply the streets at the slowest possible speed to conserve fuel. Sunday c-ckfights and wet season thunderstorms are often as exciting as it gets.

When things are normal, life tends to move at a pretty slow pace. It is only when violence erupts that East Timor goes from a lazy day dream to a frantic nightmare.

But right now, there is no sense of the tensions that have marked East Timor’s major political occasions; the 1999 vote for independence and the 2007 elections. In Dili and elsewhere, apart from the election posters and the occasional truckload of good-natured chanting political supporters, one would hardly know that a national election will be held this Saturday.

Many of Dili’s street corners are marked by concrete sentry boxes built under Indonesian occupation. In 2006 and ‘07 they were occupied by UN police. A few days before the 2012 presidential election, they are empty, but for occasional idle youth, smoking and chatting. There is no need, right now, for the police to be out.

The presidential election, the first of two scheduled rounds, is to elect East Timor’s largely ceremonial president. Assuming that no one receives more than 50% of the initial vote, which is unlikely, three of the 13 candidates are thought to have most chance of moving through to the second round of voting in mid-April.

The current, well-known and largely popular president, Jose Ramos-Horta, is no longer supported by his former comrade, prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Without such backing, most commentators believe he will struggle to move into the second round.

Replacing him as Xanana’s favourite is former armed force commander Taur Matan Ruak, who is widely considered to be a highly competitive contender for the job. The third leading candidate is Fretilin’s Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, who also has a strong chance of moving into the second round.

East Timor watchers will be looking, then, to see who progresses into the second round and how the votes of unsuccessful candidates’ supporters will be distributed. This will ultimately determine who will be East Timor’s next president.

It will also indicate what the constellation of parties will be to form the next parliamentary majority and whether the president is likely to be aligned with that grouping. Among the president’s few real powers is choosing the prime minister, based on the prospective PM either receiving the most votes, even if without an absolute majority, or based on commanding the confidence of a majority in parliament. The president also has the power of veto over legislation, which could be exercised if the president’s policy preferences do not match those of the majority of parliament.

Depending on who wins the presidency, how they decide to appoint the next prime minister and whether the president supports the parliamentary majority program, will go a long way towards determining whether East Timor retains its pre-electoral calm.

*Deakin University’s professor Damien Kingsbury is co-ordinating the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network observers mission to East Timor’s 2012 elections

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