By Sid Astbury -
East Timor was once torn by conflict but is now about a week away from a presidential election contested by a dozen candidates promising to keep the peace and deliver a bit more prosperity to its 1.1 million mostly Roman Catholic people.
The half-island on Australia's doorstep that for the 24 years up to 1999 was an Indonesian province is settling down. President Jose Ramos-Horta (pictured), who is seeking a second term in the March 17 ballot, is wooing voters in what is officially called Timor Leste with a promise that he can deliver membership in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), the region's main diplomatic grouping.
Ramos-Horta, a former prime minister, said East Timor, which was the world's newest country until South Sudan took the title last year, could stand alongside Asean members Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar on most measures of development.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who swapped jobs with Ramos-Horta after the 2007 presidential election, is not officially backing the 62-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner. His CRNT party has put forward Taur Matan Ruak, an independence war hero who retired last year as armed forces chief in the former Portuguese colony.
Also bidding for the post is Francisco Guterres Lu Olo from the left-wing Fretilin Party, which provided the new nation with its first prime minister after independence in 2002.
Fretilin's Mari Alkatiri was forced from the prime ministership in 2006 and replaced by Ramos-Horta.If there is no clear winner in this month's voting, the contest would be decided in a run-off between the two top candidates in April.
Front runner Ramos-Horta said East Timor has overcome a past that had the army and police fighting pitched battles in the streets of Dili in 2006. In 2008, Ramos-Horta was shot in an assassination attempt by disgruntled soldiers.
"In the past few years, the political situation has been remarkably free of tension," he wrote in an article published in the East Asia Forum blog. He said petroleum revenues have made the government debt-free and given it the highest budget surplus in the world.
On the other side of the ledger, about 40 per cent of the population live on less that $1 a day and the same proportion are malnourished.
According to the Australian government's aid agency, AusAID, East Timor is a "post-conflict state that has experienced bouts of conflict or instability on average every two years since the independence vote in 1999." Damien Kingsbury, a professor at Melbourne's Deakin University, noted that Ramos-Horta and Gusmao are no longer chums and that this has made the outcome of the presidential election uncertain.
The results of the country's third presidential poll would hint at who would come out on top in parliamentary elections scheduled for June 29. Angela Freitas is running for president on behalf of her Labor Party, and she has no time for the incumbent.
"Ramos-Horta has for 10 years presided over rising unemployment, diminishing living standards and increasing government corruption," she told The Australian newspaper. "He has done nothing to bring the country under control."