• An East Timorese woman shows her marked finger after casting her vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Dili,Timor Leste, 20 March 2017. (EPA)
Timor-Leste citizens have voted to decide who will be the next president of Australia's near neighbour.
By
Andrea Nierhoff, Abbie O'Brien

20 Mar - 9:26 PM  UPDATED 21 Mar - 2:39 PM

Residents of Timor Leste have voted in presidential election for the first time since the end of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in 2012.

Eight candidates were fighting to win the largely ceremonial position, heading up the nation of 1.2 million people just 15 years after it declared independence.

It’s also the first time that Timorese Australians were able to cast their votes from abroad.

Despite fears of violence at the polls, there have only been reports of sporadic unrest in the lead-up to the vote.

Professor Damien Kingsbury is coordinating Australia's election observer mission from the village of Balibo.

He told SBS he’s pleased with how everything was run.

“It’s gone very smoothly,” he said, “even in very remote villages”.

“It’s a festive atmosphere, the locals are very enthusiastic about voting and they see it as an opportunity both to engage in a decision-making process, but it’s also an opportunity for them to meet and have a social occasion.”

Favourite to win is Francisco Guterres, also known as 'Lu Olo', a former resistance fighter and the leader of the second-biggest political party, Fretilin.

Australian Timor-Leste community cast their votes in Sydney:

He has been backed by former president Xanana Gusmao, seen as a champion of independence.

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Mr Guterres needs to secure more than half the vote to avoid a second run-off round of voting in April.

His closest rival is Democratic Party politician Antonio da Conceicao, while current leader Taur Matan Rauk is not seeking re-election.

Professor Kingsbury said the two have vastly different campaign platforms.

“One’s (Guterres) stability and continuity versus (da Conceicao) change and anti-corruption,” he said.

“This is essentially the main dividing point.”

Timor-Leste Ambassador to Australia speaks to SBS:

It’s not Mr Guterres’ first shot at the presidency, having unsuccessfully run in a 2007 poll.

Whoever becomes Timor Leste’s next president faces a host of challenges, including an unemployment rate close to 60 per cent and an ongoing maritime boundary dispute with Australia - and the related rights over the resources in the Greater Sunrise gas field.

“As we know, the Timor Leste president has a largely ceremonial role, so the president is not directly involved in negotiations over the Timor Sea issue.

"What we are seeing though is an indication of a more open position, coming from at least his perspective. Having said that, both countries are in negotiations at the moment, so it’s almost beholden upon both parties to be at least publicly flexible about the process and the possible outcome."

Timor Leste citizens cast their vote:

Ambassador to Australia, Abel Guterres, said whatever the outcome, he’s just pleased with the progress the country has made.

“The country’s relatively young, to build a democracy, to build an institution of the state – it will take a little bit of time,” he said.

“We started with a country with 80 per cent of the infrastructure destroyed. Building from below zero, to what it is today – we have done fantastically well.”

The election is widely considered the prelude to the more important parliamentary elections to choose the government and prime minister, to be held in July.

Preliminary results are expected within a few days.

-with AFP

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