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Timor-Leste elections: Citizens head to polls to cast vote for president to 'speak for the people'

Jose Luis Valadares looks at the camera near the ocean
This is Jose Luis Valadares' first time voting since Timor-Leste's independence referendum in 1999.

ABC News: Felicity James

The people of Timor-Leste head to the polls today to elect a new president, with former guerrilla fighter Francisco "Lu'Olo" Guterres widely tipped to out-poll seven other candidates.

Key points:

  • Lu'Olo is tipped to win the presidential election, he says he is confident he will have the numbers
  • Lu'Olo is endorsed by former president and independence leader Xanana Gusmao
  • It's the first time since the country's independence referendum that Timorese Australians can vote without travelling back to Dili

In Darwin, dual Timorese-Australian citizen Jose Luis Valadares is voting in Timor-Leste's elections for the first time since the country's independence referendum in 1999, which ended more than two decades of Indonesian rule.

"That was hard, to win that right," he said.

"As a figurehead of state, [the President] can still can speak for the people — if the people come to him and say 'look, we don't have water, we don't have roads or good health'," Mr Valadares said.

Timor-Leste's electoral commission is running a voting trial in Darwin and Sydney, allowing some Timorese-Australians a chance to vote in the country's elections without travelling back to Dili.

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Fretilin's Lu'Olo said he was confident about winning more than 50 per cent of the vote, which would eliminate the need for a second round election in April.

"He's very, very positive, from the numbers participating in the rallies," Lu'Olo's spokesman Harold Moucho told the ABC.

Lu'Olo has been endorsed by former prime minister and resistance leader Xanana Gusmao from CNRT, which is part of a "government of national unity" coalition with Fretilin.

In Dili, politics professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University is heading Australia's election observer mission and said there had been some initial teething problems.

He said there had been delays in passing election-related legislation through Parliament, which held up financing for the election process.

But Mr Kingsbury said the country had come a long way since the 1999 referendum, with a minimal level of assistance needed from the international community compared with elections in 2012 and 2007.

'Anything can happen'

Supporters of presidential candidate "Lu'Olo" cheer at a campaign rally ahead of the election.
Supporters of presidential candidate "Lu'Olo" cheer at a campaign rally ahead of the election.

Reuters: Lirio da Fonseca

Lu'Olo is on Timor-Leste's Maritime Council, which is supervising maritime boundary negotiations with Australia, and has an open mind about the discussions, according to his spokesman.

"His position is the same as the Government position," Mr Moucho said.

"But during negotiations anything can happen."

Mr Gusmao, currently the Planning and Strategic Investment Minister, has previously insisted gas from the undeveloped Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea be processed by Timor-Leste onshore, rather than via a floating platform or pipeline to Darwin.

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The new president will replace Taur Matan Ruak, who is expected to run in the July parliamentary elections with the newly formed People's Liberation Party.

Local NGO La'o Hamatuk said in the lead-up to that election, issues of government transparency and how to expand the country's economy beyond oil and gas revenue would be up for debate.

By 2022 Timor-Leste will receive no new revenue from oil and gas, according to La'o Hamatuk, and the country's $US16 billion sovereign wealth fund will be half its current size.

"Timor-Leste needs to move away from oil and gas dependency," La'o Hamatuk researcher Charlie Scheiner said.

Politics professor Michael Leach from Swinburne University said the Timor-Leste Government's dominant approach had been to fund "mega projects".

These include the $US1.4 billion Tasi Mane petroleum infrastructure project and the $US1.36 billion Special Economic Zone (ZEESM).

"Those two projects have been receiving much of the budget funding and that's sometimes been a controversial approach," Mr Leach said.

Timorese-Australians say voting trial should be expanded

Egas Alves and his 20-year-old daughter Deci will also be voting from Darwin.

"It's so good now that they've involved Timorese outside of Timor-Leste, because it's expensive to go back and vote," Ms Alves said.

Mr Alves takes a selfie with his daughter Deci
Mr Alves hopes that in time the voting trial will include communities in other Australian jurisdictions.

ABC News: Felicity James

Mr Alves said he arrived in Darwin with his family in December 1994, after working to get information to Xanana Gusmao and guerrillas in Timor-Leste's mountains.

For Mr Alves, security should remain the country's priority.

"I think the country's now heading in the right direction, because the two major parties, Fretilin and CNRT join together so they can together develop the country," he said.

Mr Valadares said the Australian voting trial should have included Timorese communities in Melbourne, Perth and other jurisdictions.

"They have been denied this time, so I hope next time they will be able to do it."

Timor-Leste presidential candidate Francisco Gutteres (L) is seen with former president Xanana Gusmao.
Former president Xanana Gusmao (R) has endorsed presidential candidate Francisco Guterres (L).

Reuters: Lirio Da Fonseca