Troubled East Timor goes to the polls to elect president

Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta pitted against ex-guerrilla turned politician Fransisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres.

East Timor votes 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
East Timor votes 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
East Timor began voting Wednesday for a new president, a critical step in Asia's newest nation following violence and political turmoil last year that took it to the brink of civil war. About 500,000 people are eligible to vote in the polls, which pit Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta against Fransisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, an ex-guerrilla turned politician who spent years in the jungles fighting Indonesian rule. "I am happy to cast my vote today," said Sebas Freitas, one of hundreds who began queuing at polling stations in the capital Dili from before dawn. "I just hope the winner leads the people well, and the loser supports him so there is no unnecessary conflict." The vote follows balloting last month that ended without an outright winner. Ramos-Horta - who fled East Timor during the occupation to became the international face of its freedom movement - is seen as the favorite, especially since five losing candidates in the first round of voting are urging their supporters to back him. But Guterres, 52, is backed by Fretilin, the political party of the nation's former armed resistance to Jakarta's rule. It traditionally has strong support across the country and a powerful party machine. The winner will have to heal deep divisions in the desperately poor nation. While both candidates have pledged to accept the results, there are fears the poll could trigger fresh unrest. East Timor broke free from 24 years of often brutal Indonesian rule in 1999 following a violence-plagued independence referendum. The bloodshed only stopped with the arrival of international peacekeepers. The country was administered by the United Nations until 2002, and descended into chaos last year after then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri fired a third of the army following a mutiny, provoking gunbattles between rival security forces that spiraled into gang warfare and looting. At least 37 people were killed and some 155,000 fled their homes before the government collapsed. A 1,200-strong Australian-led peacekeeping force has since restored order and, along with a similar-sized contingent of UN police officers, now provides national security. The results of the polls should be known by late Friday, elections officials say. There appears to be few policy differences between the two candidates. Ramos-Horta, 57, has pledged to make it easier for foreign investors to do business in the country, and said that the United Nations and international troops would be welcome to stay in the country for many years. "I choose Ramos Horta because he loves poor people like me and is good on the international stage," said voter Selistina Araujo. Fretilin is traditionally a left-leaning party, but Guterres has shown no sign he will steer the country away from the free-market course it has taken since independence. "Lu Olo was a brilliant fighter against Indonesian military occupation. He did his duty well then and we now want him to be our president," said another voter, Stil Oliveira. The post of president is largely ceremonial, but in June, the country of 900,000 people will vote for the more powerful post of prime minister, a job being sought by Ramos-Horta's close political ally, Xanana Gusmao, the popular outgoing president. Supporters of rival candidates clashed in the run-up to the first vote, but campaigning this time around has been peaceful. "We are satisfied that there's enough security in place to guarantee that East Timorese will vote in a safe manner on Wednesday," Finn Reske-Nielsen, deputy head of the UN mission in the country, said. On Tuesday, around 100 gang members fought with machetes and rocks in a part of the capital prone to unrest, injuring one man in the head, said Antonio da Silva, the UN police chief in Dili. The crowd was dispersed with tear gas and the incident did not appear to be related to the elections, he said. East Timor is one of the poorest nations in Asia, with average per capita income of less than a dollar a day and estimated unemployment of 50 percent. One-third of the population experiences regular food shortages, the World Food Program said, while some 60 percent of children under five suffer malnutrition.