Timor-Leste goes to the polls again on Saturday to elect a new president for a five-year term. While the president's role is largely ceremonial in formal terms, and government is formed at the parliamentary elections in June, it remains a highly influential position. The 2012 election will be especially important in several respects. First, it will cement part of the leadership that will take Timor-Leste beyond 13 years of major international security assistance. Both the UNMIT policing mission and Australian-led International Stabilisation Force are set to draw down at the end of 2012. This transitional period will prove a key test for the nation's young democracy, its often fractious political elite, and reformed security institutions.

Twelve candidates have taken to the hustings, including a surprise independent nomination from Rogerio Lobato, the former minister for the interior convicted of distributing weapons in the 2006 crisis. Campaigning has been complicated by the poor state of district roads, made considerably worse by an extended wet season. Despite this, convoys of supporters have been braving the elements with great enthusiasm. Encouragingly, Dili appears far calmer than the pre-election period in 2007, with little overt tension between the presidential teams. The death of the first president, Xavier do Amaral, who proclaimed Timor-Leste's short-lived independence in 1975, also added a sombre note of national reflection and mourning to the first week of the campaign. With a strong likelihood that no candidate will reach 50 per cent, the top two candidates will run-off in a second election in April.

Political legitimacy remains strongly associated with resistance to the Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999. Among the leading contenders, the three wings of the East Timorese independence movement are represented. The current incumbent and mainstay of the diplomatic front, Jose Ramos-Horta, surprised some by renominating late in a competitive field. He does so this time without the backing of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's party CNRT, an advantage he enjoyed in 2007. Though the two were once strong political allies, the president has been critical of some key government decisions, most recently the size of the 2012 budget request in a short election year. Lacking major party support, Horta's path to re-election is far harder in 2012. But he remains more popular with ordinary Timorese than with political elites, and it would be unwise to underrate his chances.

The FALINTIL military resistance is well represented, with retired defence force commander Taur Matan Ruak up against opposition party Fretilin's candidate Francisco ''Lu Olo'' Guterres. Both are respected ''24-year'' veterans of the former guerrilla force. A fourth candidate, Fernando ''Lasama'' Araujo, was a leader of the less-celebrated but influential clandestine resistance, dominated by the youth of the 1980s and 1990s.

Though an independent, Ruak's campaign has been bolstered by the formal support of CNRT. Ruak is well-respected by all the other major parties, and will attract support from many younger Timorese, and those disaffected with current elites. For these reasons, it is likely that the CNRT sees mutual benefit in the association. Ruak's announcement supporting compulsory military service for 18-year-olds created headlines this week, but would require parliamentary backing, and was rejected when first proposed in 2007. For his part, Lu Olo brings the relatively disciplined vote of the largest party, Fretilin, giving him a strong chance of making the second round. A massive Fretilin rally in Dili underscored this point yesterday.

Presidential powers include the formal appointment of a new government following parliamentary elections in June. Though bound to appoint the party or alliance commanding a majority, the president's role as a national leader is critical to stability during and after the formation of a new government, and frequently underrated.

Other powers include a limited veto over legislation, and the power to issue pardons. Horta's pardons of former pro-Indonesian militia has furthered an agenda of reconciliation, but proved more controversial among a populace seeking justice for past crimes. Many of the key recommendations of Timor-Leste's Truth and Reconciliation Commission are yet to be addressed. These include long delayed parliamentary debates over a national reparations law for victims, and a national institute of memory. Less controversial programs have also stalled, like the International Forensic Team's work, searching for bodies of the disappeared. Their short-term funding from the East Timorese Government has expired, and currently awaits renewal. Many hope that these issues will feature more strongly in the run-off presidential election than they have to date.

Finally, in a country without opinion polling, the presidential election offers the best indication of party support in the parliamentary elections to follow. In 2007, party votes broadly mirrored those of their formal or unofficial presidential candidates. The March election will be keenly watched for signs of how party support has shifted. For its part, the run-off in April may indicate how smaller parties lean in future parliamentary coalition negotiations, in the form of endorsements for the final two candidates.

Ruak's team has every right to consider him a frontrunner in 2012, but he is up against a giant of national politics, and a third candidate whose tight support may allow just one other to progress to the run-off. Much will depend on who the eliminated third- and fourth-placed candidates support. Even if unsuccessful in 2012, Ruak may be offered the ministry of defence, preserving him as a key player to watch for the future. What Ramos-Horta does next if unsuccessful is another major. While any new government would find him hard to overlook as foreign minister, there is every chance he may instead look abroad at other senior opportunities, marking the first departure of a key historic leader from the national stage.

Michael Leach is an associate professor in politics and public policy at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology.