East Timor votes after tense campaign

Dili (East Timor) (AFP) –


East Timor headed to the polls Saturday after a tension-filled campaign that has focussed on boosting development and diversifying the impoverished young country's oil-dependent economy.

It will be the second general election in less than a year after a months-long political impasse saw the 65-member parliament dissolved in January.

Some 784,000 people are registered to vote across 13 municipalities and voters turned out early to cast their ballot.

"I am proud because today I have made my choice. I choose Fretilin because it has a good program to move the country forward," voter Leni Fernandes said.

Political parties on the tiny half-island nation of 1.2 million people made their final pitch to voters this week, wrapping up a fractious campaign.

Violent clashes broke out last weekend between supporters of the Fretilin party and backers of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) led by former president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Despite a relatively peaceful election in July, some analysts have warned the charged political environment could lead to unrest this time around.

"There are concerns given the vitriol that has accompanied the campaigning, that once the results are known one of the two main groups is going to be very disappointed and there may be trouble," Damien Kingsbury, coordinator of the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission, told AFP.

Parliament was dissolved and new elections called amid tensions between former prime minister Mari Alkatiri's minority government and the opposition centred around Gusmao's CNRT.

Alkatiri's Fretilin party, which narrowly won last July's poll, collapsed after its bid to introduce a policy programme and new budget were thwarted by a hostile opposition.

The parliamentary election will determine the choice of prime minister for the former Portuguese colony.

Chosen by the winning party or a coalition of parties in parliament, the prime minister the most influential political figure, as the presidency is largely ceremonial but can help keep the peace between feuding politicians.

Fretilin and the three-party Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) led by the CNRT are expected to dominate polls again.

East Timor won independence in 2002 after a brutal, 24-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia.