DILI, East Timor — East Timor's former independence fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta is set to win the presidential runoff election, according to over 60% of the votes counted Wednesday, defeating incumbent Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres for the second time in Asia's youngest democracy.
Official results are not expected until next week, but Ramos-Horta, who led resistance during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, had 61.72% of the votes counted so far. Guterres was trailing with 38.28% and had promised to accept the outcome.
The runoff was held peacefully on Tuesday. Ramos-Horta had a commanding lead in the first round but failed to exceed the 50% threshold for the victory.
Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s president from 2007 to 2012, and Guterres have blamed each other for years of political paralysis. The two also squared off in a second round in 2007.
Ramos-Horta pledged to reduce poverty, improve health services for mothers and children and create more jobs if he is elected, and vowed to build communication with the governing parties to restore the the nation’s political stability and prevent a more severe economic downturn.
The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia for a quarter century and gained independence after a U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1999. Indonesia’s military responded with scorched-earth attacks that devastated the East Timorese half of the island of Timor.
More than 76% of the votes last month went to resistance-era figures, showing how much they dominate politics after two decades despite younger voices emerging.
The president is responsible for naming the government and dissolving parliament. The incoming president takes office on May 20, the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence.
In 2018, Guterres refused to swear in nine Cabinet nominees from the National Congress of the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as CNRT, a party led by former prime minister and independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who then backed Ramos-Horta’s run for president.
Guterres is from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by its local acronym Fretilin, which had led resistance to Indonesian rule.
Fretilin said that Ramos-Horta is unfit for president, accusing him of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006, when dozens were killed as political rivalries turned into open conflict on the streets of Dili.
The latest impasse led to the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020. But he agreed to stay on until a new government is formed and to oversee the battle against the coronavirus pandemic with a $250 million war chest. His government has operated without an annual budget and has relied on monthly injections from its sovereign fund savings, called the Petroleum Fund.
During his campaign, Ramos-Horta declared he would call an early parliamentary election if a new majority — based on the CNRT — couldn’t be negotiated among the parties in the current parliament. Many are concerned that calling an election early could inflame tensions.
East Timor's transition to a democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption as it continues to struggle with the legacy of its bloody independence battle. Its economy is reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues.
Turnout in the second round was 71.6%, or 6% lower than in the first round.