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Tiny East Timor is just a decade old, but already its people are well-used to elections. Saturday was its third parliamentary vote since independence 10 years, and there have been successive rounds of presidential and local elections as well. “I have voted several times since 2002, in many elections” said Idalina Odete, speaking just after voting on Saturday morning.

PM Xanana Gusmao before voting on Saturday morning (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Prime minister Xanana Gusmao strolled down the street to same polling station about a half-hour later, accompanied by his Australian-born wife Kirsty. After a few minutes backslapping and banter with Cambodian election observers, he declined to answer questions before he voted, saying, “I am not here to answer your questions, I am here to answer my question.”

One cannot be sure after such an esoteric response, but it’s likely that question the prime minister had in mind is whether or not he can retain his job as head of government of the country also known as Timor-Leste, after 5 years of increasing oil and gas takings and – critics say – too much government spending for a country that is supposed to bank its energy earnings for when the oil runs out. That rainy day could come as soon as 2024 if a disputed offshore gas field does not come on-stream.

Voting in Dili’s Comoro district (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Energy dependency has already taken hold, though it is probably too soon to say that East Timor is resource-cursed. The numbers are stark, however, and this year oil and gas will fund 89% of state spending, but in 2010 East Timor’s non-oil exports amounted to just US$17million dollars, almost all of it coffee.

On Friday, Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party colleague Dionisio Babo was more forthcoming than his boss. “We will win a majority, we are confident” he said, in an interview at the party HQ.

That could be a tall order in an election fought by 21 parties – a proliferation of parties likely spurred by a US25,000 government subsidy – all canvassing an electorate of 645,624 – with a party needing to cross a 3% vote threshold to qualify for a parliament seat.

Cynicism aside, Gusmao surely wants a majority to vault the horse trading that characterised his 5 party coalition in power since the last 2007 vote. The main challenge is from FRETILIN, which governed East Timor for 2002 to 2007 and is the biggest party based on the seats in the last parliament.

Voters dip index finger in ink as marker to prevent repeat voting (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

In an interview earlier this week, FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri said that he was confident that his party could win, saying that the people appreciate what he feels was his party’s constructive opposition, in the face of the government’s “failure on all counts,” as he put it.

There have been allegations of graft against several member of the outgoing government, and Dili runs with gossip about ostentatious officials and relatives of high-ranking people living beyond their means, if their public service salaries are anything to go by.

Gusmao’s justice minister Lucia Lobato was recently given a 5 year jail term for corruption, but nonetheless she is running for parliament. Idaline Odete says that she is disappointed in Lobato. “People like her were trusted by the people, what will happen to us if leaders are corrupt?’ she asks.

Asked about the Lobato case, Dionisio Babo says that “it might have been just negligence,” and defends his party’s record on dealing with graft and with co-operating with the country’s anti-corruption commission.

But does this incur the ire of voting Timorese? Not so going by those interviewed over the past few days. Artur Gonzaga Cardoso is a 30 year security guard from Manufahi in Timor’s populous highlands, but moved to Dili for work.

“There is nothing there for me,” he says, referring to his homeplace, and, he believes that it is more important for the next government to bring economic development to the countryside. “Outside Dili they don’t feel what independence is yet,” adds Cardoso.

East Timor is country where 4 out 10 people live under the poverty line and where 70% of those of working age make a living by farming or fishing or are otherwise underemployed. There’s no real industry and most goods must be imported. Outside Dili – itself a picturesque if ramshackle town – people don’t have much access to clean water, toilets, electricity or roads. Could tales of corruption could spark anger, even if the formalities and ceremonies of democracy are working well?

But Timorese people assess that their country is young, and fragile, and acknowledge that there are problems with corruption and poverty that will not be fixed anytime soon. At the same time it seems most feel that these are not worth protesting, not least when there are elections to be contested. In 2006 the country almost fell into civil war, and with memories of this still fresh, Timorese are happy to keep politics and grievances off the streets, for now at least.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Dili

Counting votes at Colmera in Dili on Saturday afternoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

  – reporting supported by Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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