Helen Davidson and Ben Doherty | Monday 20 March 2017 03.45 GMT
A former revolutionary hero is expected to become Timor-Leste’s next president as voters head to the polls in the country’s first election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012.
It is also the first time Timorese Australians have been allowed to cast absentee votes – in Sydney and Darwin – without having to travel back to Dili.
Monday’s election comes at a trying time in the island nation’s short history as an independent state, with oil and gas revenue to run dry within a decade and negotiations with Australia faltering over reserves in the Timor Sea.
Timor-Leste’s 1.2 million people are widely expected to support the former independence fighter Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres.
Guterres is standing for the third time as a candidate for Fretilin – formally the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor – the leftwing nationalist party that began as a resistance movement fighting for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia.
Guterres has the support of the revered independence hero Xanana Gusmão, who has been a popular president and prime minister during the 15 years since Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia.
While the president has veto power over legislation the role is largely symbolic, and is seen as a unifying figure for the country. Elections for the unicameral parliament and its prime minister will be held later this year.
Timor-Leste’s presidential elections are run on a direct election system. If no candidate in the first round, held on Monday, attracts more than 50% of the vote, a second round, contested only by the two highest vote-getters, is held. The second round, if needed, will be held on 20 April this year.
Guterres – who has lost twice in run-off votes – has told media he believes he has the numbers to win the first round.
But José Ramos-Horta, the country’s former president and prime minister, told the Guardian he would not be surprised if voters would have to return to the polls in April to decide between Guterres and the Democratic party candidate, Antonio Conceição.
The country’s leadership has largely been held by high-profile resistance leaders, including Gusmão, Ramos-Horta, who served as both president and prime minister, the departing president Taur Matan Ruak and the former prime minister Mari Alkatiri.
But Ramos-Horta said a younger generation of leaders was emerging and it was a “cliche” that veterans of the independence struggle dominated parliament.
He said only Alkatiri and Gusmão were still active, and cited the current prime minister, Rui Araujo, as a “highly respected, honest, and competent” leader who was not part of the old guard.
Timor-Leste has been widely praised as a standout democracy in south-east Asia but it faces deep economic challenges in the near future. It is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas reserves, and the main Bayu Undan gas fields are expected to run out within the next decade.
A dispute with Australia over the revenue split from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea has been bitter, with Australia found to have spied on Timorese diplomats during negotiations. In January Timor-Leste dropped its spying case against Australia as a sign of “good faith” and withdrew from the treaty which determined the revenue divide.
Guterres has suggested he would be more open to some aspects of the negotiation than Gusmão, Fairfax Media reported on Monday.
Ramos-Horta told the Guardian the relationship between the two countries was strong and stable, and they were determined to reach a “mutually satisfactory” solution by the end of the year.
He called for a future government to put restrictions on non-essential imports and “at some point” put controls on currency exports to stop money being “siphoned off the country by corrupt Timorese and foreign business”.
“In coming years the new government has to slow down on public expenditure and this can be achieved through ending waste and corruption,” he said. “It can slow down on some major infrastructure development. But it must continue to invest in education, health, nutrition, agriculture.”
Timor-Leste has been warned to crack down on corruption and has faced criticism for its attempts to place controls on media. Two Timorese journalists were charged with “slanderous denunciation” for a report on Araujo last year, and the International Federation of Journalists has campaigned against proposed restrictive laws.
Ramos-Horta dismissed claims of a media crackdown as “nonsense”.
“In 15 years there hasn’t been a single newspaper or radio closed down by the government,” he said. “Not a single journalist in jail in spite of so many falsehoods printed by the media. Journalists have the right to partake information with the public but I also believe that individuals, private or public have the right to recourse to courts to clear their names.”
Democratic party candidate Antonio da Conseicao casts his vote.
Democratic party candidate Antonio Conceição casts his vote. Photograph: Antonio Dasiparu/EPA
Ramos-Horta also disputed polling done by the Asia Foundation, which found increasing discontent among the population. In the two years to 2016 the proportion of people who believed the country was going in the right direction dropped from 74% to 58%. For people under 25 it dropped from 80% to 50%.
In 2012 the two main political parties formed a coalition, which prompted concern about a lack of parliamentary scrutiny, and in 2006 a political crisis resulted in violence, deaths and coup attempts.
Despite these concerns, Ramos-Horta said there was “no risk” of Timor-Leste turning its back on democracy. He said it had a strong civil society and media.
“Our people are too independent-minded and opinionated to be silenced.”
Ramos-Horta has not endorsed a candidate. Nor has he ruled out a return to politics, telling the Guardian he would “consider any role, formal or informal – as I have done in recent years – in helping the government [ or] president, which means helping the country.”