East Timor in test vote

East Timor voted Saturday in a peaceful presidential election seen as a test of political stability ahead of the departure of UN troops. The young nation is still recovering from a bloody break for independence from Indonesia a decade ago.


AFP - East Timor voted Saturday in the country's second presidential election as a free nation, seen as a key test for a young democracy taking charge of its own security as UN forces prepare to leave.

Polling began in the morning and ended at 3:00 pm (0600 GMT) with no unrest reported in a contest that pits the Nobel Prize-winning incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta against 11 other hopefuls.

Voting was remarkably organised for a poor and chronically unstable country still traumatised by Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation, which ended with a vote for independence in 1999.

"As a matter of security the day was a success. There were no major incidents," said United Nations Police commissioner Luis Carrilho.

"In a few districts the weather conditions were terrible due to heavy rain, so for some people casting their vote was a little bit difficult," he added.

The peaceful polling stood in stark contrast to the deadly pre-election violence that erupted in 2006, which left the country on the brink of civil war.

"There has not been a single incidence of violence, so that's great for the country," Ramos-Horta said after voting in the capital Dili, with coffee-brown ink on his index finger indicating he had exercised his democratic right.

A large turnout was reported nationwide, with some stations having to dip into reserve ballots, election officials said.

At a school house in the village of Balibar, in the cool hills overlooking Dili, voters trickled in about an hour after polls opened at 7:00 am (2200 GMT Friday), some carrying babies or toddlers and many barefoot.

East Timor's second presidential election as a free nation is the first in a series of key events for the country as it enters a pivotal period.

In May, East Timor will celebrate 10 years of independence, which came after three years of UN administration. And in June, voters will choose a new government in a general election.

At the end of the year the nation of 1.1 million people bids goodbye to UN forces stationed in the country since 1999.

Among East Timor's many problems is its heavy reliance on energy reserves, which account for around 90 percent of state revenues, making it the world's most oil-dependent economy.

"It is an obligation for every citizen to vote because this is a democracy and we have the right to choose our own leaders," said Sidonia Perreira, a government clerk who went to vote with his wife and two small children.

Constitutionally, the presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but its profile has been boosted by Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the independence conflict.

The popular 62-year-old, who survived a 2008 assassination attempt, is the second post-independence president after Xanana Gusmao -- a former anti-Indonesia rebel leader who is now prime minister.

"If I'm not elected, I have so many things to do -- I have to struggle to choose what to do," Ramos-Horta told reporters, explaining that he had a long-standing commitment to a Western literary agency to write a book.

The race for the presidency is largely a three-way contest between Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin party's Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres and former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak, a guerrilla leader during the occupation.

Candidates must garner more than 50 percent of the vote for an outright win, otherwise a run-off will be held in coming weeks.

"There will be no second round. I am confident I will win today," Ruak told reporters shortly after voting at a Dili school crowded with voters, journalists, international observers and a stray dog nursing puppies.

In 2007, Ramos-Horta won in a second-round of voting against Guterres, buoyed by the support of Gusmao's Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor party.

But this time the party is backing Ruak. Ramos-Horta has been increasingly critical of Gusmao's government, but he said he was not displeased with the prime minister's decision to back his rival.

"I'm very happy he's supporting one of my favourite candidates. If someone supports (Ruak) I'm happy because I admire (Ruak)," he told reporters after voting.

At another polling station in the capital a barefoot last-minute voter rushed in just at the start of a downpour of rain, bending over to wipe off her inked finger in a puddle of muddy water after voting.

Poll workers cancelled unused ballot papers and locked ballot boxes with numbered seals immediately after voting stopped.

Formal results from Saturday's vote were not expected until early next week.

International observers and representatives monitored the polls.

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