Thomas Ora, Dili – In a sign of how much influence the Catholic Church retains in Timor-Leste all eight presidential candidates together with 5,000 people, joined a prayer rally in Dili to mark the start of campaigning ahead of the March 20 election.
In acknowledgement of the country's turbulent past since its colonial Portuguese masters left in 1975, candidates signed an agreement for a peaceful campaign on white linen after walking, chanting the Rosary, on March 2 from St. Joseph's Church to a Marian shrine next to the Dili bishop's residence.
The campaign, in which Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo is seen as the front-runner, kicked off on March 3 and ends on March 17.
The presidential election will be followed by elections for the nation's one house parliament in July where the party with the most seats chooses the prime minister.
While the presidency is somewhat symbolic, the holder of the office is the commander in chief of the armed forces and has power to veto certain legislation
"The church wants leaders who love peace and embrace all elements of society, to ensure growth in all aspects," Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said, speaking after the march. "Everyone should accept whoever wins the presidential race on March 20," he added.
Jose Ramos-Horta, former Timor-Leste president and Noble Peace Prize laureate, called on all political leaders to follow a peace agreement – facilitated by the Catholic Church – that ended civil strife following independence from Indonesia. "As Christians we all should love peace, which is the cultural identity of Timor," he said.
Five of the eight presidential candidates are supported by political parties, namely Antonio Maher Lopes (Socialist Party of Timor); Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor); Jose Luis Guterres (Front for National Reconstruction of Timor-Leste – Change); Maria Angela Freitas da Silva (Labour Party); and Antonio da Conceicao (Democratic Party).
Three are independent candidates, Jose Antonio de Jesus das Neves, a former guerrilla leader and deputy commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Amorin Vieirra and Luis Alves Tilman.
Da Silva and Lu-Olo unsuccessfully ran for president in 2002. Lu-Olo, 63, is said to be the strongest among the candidates as Fretelin – the country's biggest political party – and the National Congress support him as does Timorese Reconstruction, a political party founded by former President Xanana Kayrala Gusmao.
Gusmao is scheduled to accompany Lu-Olo during the campaign. "My younger brother Lu-Olo has a profound mission for our beloved country," Gusmao told reporters.
Lu-Olo said one of his programs is to provide better education for youths and equip them with required skills, so that they can contribute more to the state and church. "It's also to curb unemployment," he added.
Meanwhile Da Silva said rampant corruption has hampered progress in Timor-Leste, and promised to fight graft should she be elected as president. "Fighting corruption begins with bureaucrats avoiding self aggrandizement," she told reporters.
DomiNGOs Alves, 52, a farmer from Atauro Island, expected the next president to be a person who can improve people's lives on the island, particularly five villages that have no clean water.
"We have to walk more than a kilometer to fetch water from a river," he said. "As a result, many people do not have toilets and defecate in open spaces," Alves told ucanews.com.