Explained: The history, politics and economy of East Timor at polling time

East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, holds the second and final round of its presidential election on Tuesday, with frontrunner and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta running against incumbent leader Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres. Here are some facts about Asia’s youngest democracy:


The territory was colonized by Portugal in the 18th century and remained under its control until 1975. When the Portuguese withdrew, troops from Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor as the 27th province. A long and bloody struggle for independence ensued, in which at least 100,000 people died, according to a 2005 report by an independent truth commission that also accused the Indonesian military of systematic violations of human rights.

East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-supervised referendum in 1999, but it sparked even more violence until peacekeepers were allowed in. The country was officially recognized by the United Nations in 2002.

East Timor has applied to become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It currently holds observer status.

Politics and economics

In the nearly 20 years since independence, East Timor’s presidential and parliamentary elections have been dominated by many of the same faces. Resistance heroes like Ramos-Horta, Guterres and Xanana Gusmao have come forward and held various positions of power and continue to figure prominently in the running of the country.

In East Timor’s political system, the president also shares some executive powers and appoints a government and has the power to veto ministers or dissolve parliament.

East Timor depends on revenues from its offshore oil and gas reserves which account for 90% of its gross domestic product.

It has an agreement with Australia to share revenue from the Greater Sunrise gas field, worth an estimated $65 billion. Its main source of revenue, the Bayu Undan gas field, is expected to dry up by 2023 and the country now plans to work with companies like Australia’s Santos to turn it into carbon capture facilities.

But the government has been criticized for failing to capitalize on its natural resources to fund development and diversify its economy in a country where around 40% of the population languishes below the poverty line.



East Timor comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor, the western half of which is part of Indonesia. It covers an area of ​​15,000 km2 (5,792 sq mi) – slightly smaller than Israel – and its 1.3 million people are overwhelmingly Catholic.

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