By Tito Belo
DILI (Reuters) - Nobel Peace prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta faces a battle on Saturday to win re-election as president of East Timor with 11 other candidates standing, several of whom also played major roles in the nation's struggle for independence from Indonesia.
The president of Asia's newest and poorest nation plays little role in policy but is vital in projecting stability in East Timor after its bloody struggle for independence in 2002 and scattered violence around parliamentary elections in 2007.
Ramos-Horta, who survived an assassination attempt in 2008, shared the Nobel prize in 1996 for working for a peaceful solution to the East Timor conflict and his key role in the independence movement appeals to voters.
More than 9,000 supporters signed a petition asking Ramos-Horta to stand in the March 17 presidential election.
"If I am elected for a second term I will continue my success that I have achieved now, which is peace," Ramos-Horta told a crowd in Maliana district, southwest of the capital Dili, on Wednesday.
During East Timor's long campaign for independence, Ramos-Horta lived in exile, acting as a defacto foreign minister and drumming up international support for independence.
One of his main rivals will be former army chief and guerrilla leader Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, also known as Taur Matan Ruak.
"I fought for 24 years with (former guerilla leader and now Prime Minister) Xanana Gusmao and the people for the independence of East Timor," Matan Ruak said in a speech.
"Ten years after independence people are still poor and this has become my responsibility to be the president and bring hope to all citizens," he said.
Analysts said other rivals with a good chance to progress to a second round of voting on May 9 are Francisco Guterres from the Fretilin party that won the most votes in the parliamentary poll in 2007 and Fernando de Araujo of the Democratic Party.
East Timor is Asia's poorest nation but it has vast offshore natural gas reserves and is struggling to unlock this wealth.
For many voters economic issues are key, as 41 percent of East Timor's 1.2 million people live below $0.88 a day, according to a World Bank report, and malnourishment is a significant public health issue.
One of the main problems for East Timor's leaders is a dispute with Australia's Woodside Petroleum over the development of a big offshore gas field.
Woodside, which heads a consortium of firms developing the Greater Sunrise project gas field, wants to use a floating LNG plant, while East Timor wants the plant to be built onshore in order to create jobs.
The value of a petroleum fund has jumped to $6.9 billion in 2010 from $370 million in 2004 but is yet to be fully used to build the economy, said Damien Kingsbury, a professor from Australia's Deakin University.
The presidential campaign, which formally ended on Wednesday, was conducted through a series of rallies at which candidates vied to project a message of peace and stability.
Supporters plastered the dusty capital Dili with posters and toured on motor-bikes or campaign carts blasting out slogans.
"There is progress this year. I can feel this celebration of democracy and a growing tolerance among people and I feel I have my freedom to vote for the person I like," student Laurinda Beti Pinto told Reuters by phone from Dili.
The peaceful campaign has been in itself an achievement, said Cillian Nolan, Southeast Asia expert with the International Crisis Group think tank.
"These elections for many Timorese are an exercise in trying to develop more confidence to where the country is going and to project that image to the outside world," Nolan told Reuters.
(Additional reporting and writing by Olivia Rondonuwu in JAKARTA; Editing by Matthew Bigg and Michael Perry)