DILI- President Jose Ramos-Horta’s bid for reelection in East Timor suffered a blow Thursday when a key political party said it would back his opponent.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s CNRT party, which championed Ramos-Horta’s win in 2007, has shifted its support to the former military head Taur Matan Ruak for the March 17 election in one of the world’s newest nations.
The poll marks the tiny half-island nation’s second free presidential election as it celebrates 10 years of independence. The last elections were marred by violence.
“From now onwards, the official political support from CNRT party is to Mr Taur Matan Ruak. This is what we all here have decided,” CNRT General Secretary Dionisio Babo Soares told AFP.
The CNRT declined to say why it was no longer supporting Ramos-Horta. But he has repeatedly accused the party of corruption and nepotism, straining his relationship with the prime minister.
Ramos-Horta, who would not comment on CNRT’s decision, has just returned from speaking at the United Nations Security Council in New York where he hailed changes in the country since deadly unrest in 2006 forced him to appeal for a UN peacekeeping force to be sent.
Peacekeepers plan to withdraw by the year-end providing the March poll and legislative elections in June run smoothly.
Ruak resigned last year from the military to contest the presidency and is considered one of four frontrunners in the race of 13 candidates.
Like Ramos-Horta, Ruak is a popular veteran of East Timor’s resistance struggle against Indonesia’s brutal 24-year occupation that took around 200,000 Timorese lives.
Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is still likely to garner a fair share of the votes, analysts say, but stands to lose throngs of loyal CNRT supporters.
“For the most part, voters tend to be fairly party loyal. If CNRT says vote for this candidate, their followers will generally do so,” Damien Kingsbury from Melbourne-based Deakin University said.
While no political polling exists in East Timor, analysts say CNRT’s coalition government has significant support after improving stability and economic growth, rolling out electrification and eradicating starvation during its five-year term.
Ramos-Horta announced his candidacy in late January, promising peace as the nation recovers from rioting and factional fighting that left the country on the brink of civil war in 2006.
Violence also broke out ahead of the 2007 elections and assassination attempts were made on Ramos-Horta and Gusmao in 2008.
Malnutrition and a dependence on depleting oil reserves to fuel the economy still plague the nation of around 1.1 million, which is one of the poorest in the world.