Chris Barrett, Singapore – A bid by one of East Timor's founding fathers, Jose Ramos-Horta, to return to the presidency has been strongly endorsed by voters in Australia's near neighbour.
South-east Asia's youngest country went to the polls on Saturday for its fifth presidential election and while counting continued on Sunday, Ramos-Horta, 72, was clearly in front.
With the backing of independence hero Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party, the Nobel peace prize laureate was seeking to return as president a decade after he failed to win a second five-year term. He served in the office between 2007 and 2012, during which time he survived being shot in what was an attempted assassination.
By Sunday evening, with 50 per cent of ballots tallied, 44.2 per cent of votes were in favour of Ramos-Horta, according to provisional data from East Timor's electoral commission reported by Portuguese news agency Lusa.
The incumbent president, Fretilin's Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, was second on 24.5 per cent, with none of the other 14 candidates scoring 10 per cent.
Ramos-Horta said internal counting pointed to a first-round win for him, Lusa reported. "I feel positive and enthusiastic about the numbers we are registering in support of my candidacy in all municipalities," he said.
If he falls short of the 50 per cent mark required to be declared the automatic victor, Ramos-Horta will enter a final run-off against Guterres on April 19 to determine the presidency.
Ramos-Horta had campaigned on a platform of restoring political stability in Dili after years of turmoil.
But amid a bitter standoff between major parties in which governing coalitions have collapsed, Xanana's CNRT may want him to return the favour for supporting his run for president. It is now in opposition and regards the current coalition government led by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak as illegitimate.
"Whoever [the president] is will face the initial challenge of bringing Timor's fractious political parties together," said Professor Michael Leach, an expert in East Timor politics at Swinburne University of Technology.
"If it is Ramos-Horta, he is under pressure from the people who backed him to dissolve parliament. [The next] election is due a year from now in 2023 but the CNRT want an early election.
"The countervailing pressure that he would be under is that the president is the head of state and needs to bring the whole country with him and bring the country together. Dissolving parliament would be politically controversial, so that's something the president needs to manage, the formation of government."
Leach believes Xanana's backing of Ramos-Horta indicates he aspires to reclaim the prime ministership. His return to that post would enable him to resume a push to develop the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields with the $18 million Tasi Mane project that hit the skids two years ago.
In East Timor's semi-presidential system, the president doesn't have policy powers but can dissolve parliament and veto legislation and the appointment of ministers, as Guterres did after the last parliamentary elections in 2018, rejecting multiple names put forward by the CNRT.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in December, Ramos-Horta said he had been lobbied by thousands of people to contest the presidential election.
"I'm not looking for a job. I'm not looking for a salary," he said. "[But] people have been very frustrated with the last three, four years of political uncertainty and of inaction to re-energise the economy."
While Ramos-Horta was well ahead in the provisional tally, that would not be a guarantee of success in a fresh two-horse race to decide the presidency.
"The second round dynamics are interesting," Leach said.
"What happens is that all of the 14 eliminated candidates would be asked by the two remaining candidates to endorse their campaign."
East Timor's next president will be sworn in on May 20, the anniversary of the restoration of independence from Indonesia in 2002.