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Considering he has spent virtually all his life seeking the spotlight, it is hard to believe José Ramos Horta does not want to be East Timor’s president. His claim that he is only running in Monday’s election “because of the country’s crisis” and that defeat would be “liberation” rings hollow.

Best known for sharing the 1996 Nobel peace prize with his compatriot Bishop Carlos Belo at the height of Indonesia’s brutal 24-year occupation, the 57-year-old son of a Portuguese exile and East Timorese mother is on a clear political mission. He has teamed up with Xanana Gusmão, the outgoing president and revered former rebel commander, to take power and set the five-year-old half-island country on a new course – of peace and sustainable development.

The plan has three stages. The first is for Mr Horta to win the ceremonial but nonetheless influential presidency. Then Mr Gusmão, by far the country’s most charismatic politician, has to win the general election, due in four months, at the head of his newly-formed party. Once in office, the two men say they will reverse many of the Fretilin government’s policies.

Their chances are good because the country is certainly in crisis – per capita GDP of $350, excluding oil revenues, and a 54 per cent illiteracy rate are two telling statistics – and many East Timorese blame the Fretilin leadership for the mess. Most vilified is Mari Alkatiri, whom Mr Horta replaced as caretaker prime minister last June after Mr Alkatiri was forced out after weeks of violence in Dili, the capital.

Mr Horta believes his predecessor’s fundamental mistake was “to govern with absolute disregard for everyone else”.

“As a result, everybody became like enemies,” he said. “The opposition, non-governmental organisations, even the World Bank and some foreign countries.”

When this was combined with a society which, according to Mr Horta, “was living in a culture of violence, of humiliation and impunity during Indonesian occupation”, the result was bound to be explosive.

Between March 2006, when the violence erupted, and June, at least 37 Dili residents were murdered, 4,000 houses were destroyed and more than 150,000 people became refugees. Some 2,200 foreign troops were deployed to restore order. The United Nations, which ruled East Timor form 1999 until independence in 2002 and had held up its nation-building exercise as a success, rushed back with a beefed-up mission. Then Mr Horta, who returned from spending the Indonesian era in exile to become foreign minister under Mr Alkatiri but successfully distanced himself from domestic decision-making, formed a transitional administration until this year’s elections.

Putting East Timor back on an even keel will necessitate retaining the international presence for “at least five years”, Mr Horta believes. “When we talk about these issues of sovereignty, it’s meaningless if we cannot provide absolute guaranteed safety to our own people,” he said. “My priority is that our women, children, elderly, young people are able to sleep at peace at night and walk without fear to school or work or to the fields everyday.”

Fretilin, in contrast, would like to see the UN mission significantly downsized in six months.

If elected, Mr Horta says he will forge a clear role of instilling a culture of non-violence.

“We have won [independence] not because of the guns, but in spite of the very few guns we had,” he said. “Instead of a gun or machete, get a computer.”

His main focus will be the 42 per cent of the 1m population under 15.

“I will do everything to bring computers to classrooms, [along with] textbooks, food, clothing. The greatest injustice for me in the last five years is that we have done little to look after the youth.”

Mr Horta dismisses the perception that he is regarded as too urban and elite. But he does admit he is out of step with much of the country on justice for the atrocities committed during Jakarta’s rule.

“For me, justice is first – truth-telling, acknowledging one’s guilt and apologising,” he said. “I, as a friend of Indonesia – am I going to create problems for them by demanding the generals are put on trial when I know this would create a backlash in Indonesia?”

Mr Gusmão holds identical views. But because so many more urgent problems have emerged in the post-Indonesia era, such an attitude is not expected to prove too costly at the ballot box.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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