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In East Timor: A Milestone Presidential Vote

April 11, 2007

April 9th marked a historic coming of age for East Timor: the fledgling democracy’s first presidential election as an independent nation. Record numbers of voters turned out to cast ballots for the eight candidates running for president. Three of the eight ” Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, and Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo ” are considered front-runners, with five others from smaller opposition parties testing the waters for parliamentary elections later this year.

Results of the poll, to replace the charismatic former guerilla leader, President Xanana Gusmão, for a 5-year term are expected this week after enumeration of ballot papers from remote areas of the country. Early returns show that the crowded field splintered the vote, thus leading to a second round with no candidate achieving the 50%-plus-one vote needed for outright victory.

The election’s importance is three-fold.

First, in the wake of the crisis that rocked the country last year, the presidential poll allowed citizens to select the leader they believe best able to restore stability and security, enabling them to improve their economic prospects and gain other dividends from the long-fought struggle for independence from Indonesian rule.

Second, regarding East Timor’s democratic development, the outcome of the presidential election will reveal the new political landscape unfolding five years after independence. The post of president is largely a ceremonial one, but the election for it is a referendum on the leadership of the majority party Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor – Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente), which led the struggle for independence. Thus, the poll is an important milestone in East Timor’s transition to the post-independence period, reflecting the emergence of political leaders forming new alliances intended to stimulate different policy approaches to improving ordinary citizens’ quality of life. The most significant of these changes is the decision by a pillar of the resistance, Xanana Gusmão, to form a new party for the parliamentary elections, accelerating not only the development of a more pluralistic political climate, but expanding on the internal divisions that led Fretilin’s reformist wing to formally split and support independent José Ramos-Horta in the presidential election.

Finally, the election served as the warm-up for parliamentary elections later this year, with both Fretilin and smaller opposition parties using the presidential poll to test support and judge the temper of the electorate in post-independence East Timor. Among the front-runners, Xanana Gusmão’s supporters as well as Fretilin’s reformist wing were expected to vote for José Ramos-Horta. Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres, speaker of Parliament, is an official of Fretilin, and former Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri actively campaigned for Mr. Guterres in an appeal to grassroots voters and party loyalists. Another front-runner, Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo ” who led student activists during the Indonesian period ” is expected to draw the support of youth as well as from those sympathizing with the former soldiers whose complaints of discrimination sparked the violence of 2006. Other candidates had pockets of support throughout the country.

Though not without wrinkles, smooth administration of the election is a significant accomplishment for this new nation. With logistical support from the United Nations, East Timor’s Technical Secretariat for Election Administration delivered over 522,933 ballots by four-wheel drive vehicles, helicopters, 400 porters, and 90 horses to 500 polling centers and 700 polling stations for registered voters (51% men and 49% women) to cast their votes. Rocked by the violent civil unrest that paralyzed the country in 2006, 2,000 domestic observers, 200 international observers, 1,600 UN Police, nearly 1,000 international security forces, and 2,800 national police, mobilized to help ensure an election day free from violence.

East Timor eagerly awaits the final results of Monday’s ballot for a new president. Having achieved the success of a nearly violence-free and fairly smooth election day, citizens are hoping for another achievement ” winners and losers alike accepting the outcome without resorting to violence and intimidation ” as another milestone in this small island nation’s consolidation of democracy.

Katherine Hunter is The Asia Foundation’s Representative in East Timor.

View all posts by Katherine S. Hunter

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