East Timor votes to heal 'broken' nation

Posted by under Election Watch on 10 April 2007

It is the first poll since the former Portuguese colony declared independence in 2002 after a bloody separation three years earlier from occupying Indonesian forces.

Voters in East Timor cast their ballots Monday in a presidential election they hoped would pull them from a cycle of violence and political tension, but candidate Jose Ramos-Horta said many had been intimidated.

More than half the population of about one million was registered to vote in the election to replace the charismatic former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao, amid tight security and concerns over whether the result will be credible.

It is the first poll since the former Portuguese colony declared independence in 2002 after a bloody separation three years earlier from occupying Indonesian forces.

The vote follows a turbulent year in East Timor. Foreign peacekeepers arrived in May to quell violence that left at least 37 people dead and forced over 150,000 people to flee their homes.

The violence erupted after then prime minister Mari Alkatari dismissed hundreds of army deserters. Firefights subsequently broke out between factions of the military, and between the army and police, and degenerated into gang violence in Dili.

"I am very happy to give support to our nation, which is already broken," said Armindo Moreira, one of about 30 people waiting to vote at a primary school in the capital, Dili.

Eight candidates were in the running to replace Gusmao, who is not seeking re-election as ceremonial head of the tiny nation. If, as expected, no candidate gets more than 50 percent a runoff will be held on May 9.

Ramos-Horta, 57, the current prime minister and Nobel peace laureate, was seen as the leading contender, but observers said the contest was shaping up to be a three-way race.

He is up against former guerrilla and Fretilin party candidate Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, and an ex-Indonesian political prisoner, Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party.

As he voted shortly after the polls opened, Ramos-Horta told reporters that "by and large" the electoral process had been free and fair despite some incidents.

But in a television interview he accused the ruling Fretilin party of conducting widespread intimidation.

"When they say they conduct a campaign many of them they actually conduct door to door intimidation," Ramos-Horta told CNN.

Fretilin, which had accused Ramos-Horta of abuse of power for airing an Easter message on state television, was confident of victory.

"Yes. I am confident from the start," Lu-Olo, 53, told reporters.

The deputy head of the United Nations mission in East Timor, Finn Reske-Nielsen, said voting appeared to have proceeded smoothly.

"No problems have been encountered anywhere," Reske-Nielsen said.

There were no signs of tension in seaside Dili as people walked under a bright sky to cast their ballots.

Reske-Nielsen said he hoped the election would bring an end to the country's year-long crisis, which exposed tensions between Gusmao and then Fretilin prime minister Mari Alkatiri, who resigned in favour of Ramos-Horta.

Gusmao has said he will join a new political party and seek to become prime minister, prompting Fretilin to allege he is trying to "facilitate a job swap" with his close associate Ramos-Horta.

The position of prime minister is much more powerful than that of president.

At least 32 people were injured in election-related clashes last week in and around Dili although most of the campaign was peaceful, the UN said.

Fretilin led the country's independence struggle and maintains a solid support base.

More than 700 polling stations were being secured by thousands of international and local police, backed up by about 1,000 troops from an Australian-led international security force sent to quell last year's unrest.

Observers said the violence derailed attempts to rebuild the country after massive destruction and at least 1,400 deaths in Indonesian-sponsored violence surrounding a 1999 UN referendum on self-determination.

East Timor voted overwhelmingly for separation in the referendum.

Results are expected later this week.

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AFP ETimor votes to heal 'broken' nation 9 April 2007


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