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Troubled East Timor votes in landmark election

Troubled East Timor votes in landmark election
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First Published: Wed, May 09 2007. 11 00 AM IST
Updated: Wed, May 09 2007. 11 00 AM IST
Dili: Long queues formed in the early sunshine as East Timorese voted on 9 May in a presidential election they hope will end a cycle of violence that has derailed efforts to rebuild the impoverished nation.
The poll in the former Portuguese colony is a run-off between Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and the ruling Fretilin party’s candidate Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres.
The election for the largely ceremonial role is the first since East Timor formally declared independence in 2002 after a bloody separation three years earlier from occupying Indonesian forces.
Many Timorese hope the result will unify the tiny country, which is one of the world’s poorest, after more than 12 months of turmoil and violence.
Queues formed early at polling stations, mirroring the 9 April first round of voting when thousands turned out to cast their ballots.
“This is our right,” said George Lopes Belo, 29, as he waited in line at a primary school in the second city of Baucau.
“We hope that the next president, whoever that is, can get us out of this crisis, this conflict,” said Belo, who has been unable to find regular work.
More than half the population of about one million is registered to vote in the election, held amid tight security, to replace charismatic Xanana Gusmao.
East Timor erupted in violence in May last year after the prime minister of the time dismissed hundreds of army deserters. Firefights broke out between factions of the military and between the army and police that degenerated into gang clashes.
But there were no signs of tension early on 9 May in the capital Dili as people arrived at government buildings to vote.
About 300 people lined up in sunshine at a junior high school in the Comoro district of Dili guarded by UN and local police.Local police patrols were seen driving through the streets.
“For the moment, everything is going well. I think the people need democracy, people need and want peace and they want reconciliation, and this is the way to solve the crisis,” EU observer chief Javier Pomes Ruiz said.
Ramos-Horta is favourite to win after six of the failed candidates in the first round declared their support for him.
“I’m totally relaxed, whatever the outcome, I will win,” said Ramos-Horta, who took over as prime minister after the unrest, before voting in Baucau.
His mood was echoed by Guterres, a former resistance fighter and president of Fretilin. “I believe and I am confident that I will be the winner,” he said after casting his vote in Dili.
Fretilin, which was formed as a resistance movement against Portuguese and then Indonesian occupation, retains a strong support base.
Both candidates have accused each other of bribing people to win votes, and some observers have warned of violence from militant Fretilin supporters if Guterres loses.
Rights groups have also reported intimidation of voters by supporters of the candidates during door-to-door campaigning.
Polling stations were being secured by 4,000 UN and local police, backed by about 1,000 troops from an Australian-led international security force sent to quell last year’s unrest.
At least 37 people were killed then and 150,000 forced to flee their homes. More than 30,000 remain displaced in Dili, afraid to return home.
Gusmao said on 7 May that the unrest had severely set back efforts to rebuild the country.
“We began to construct a state from scratch and when we had a faint feeling of strength and stability we disintegrated into the crisis of last year, which has left profound marks we have not been able to completely overcome,” he said on 7 May.
The popular Gusmao is expected to run for the more powerful post of prime minister in elections in June.
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First Published: Wed, May 09 2007. 11 00 AM IST