East Timor elects new leader, eyes next vote

The tiny southeast Asian nation elected veteran diplomat Jose Ramos-Horta as its new president.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

One year after his tiny nation was pushed to the brink of civil war, veteran diplomat Jose Ramos-Horta has emerged as the winner in the May 9 runoff vote in East Timor's presidential election.

Election officials said Friday that 69 percent of voters had chosen Mr. Ramos-Horta over his rival Francisco Guterres, who conceded defeat. The conclusive victory, and its acceptance by the losing candidate, has buoyed hopes that East Timor can claw its way back to stable self-government after it called in Australia-led peacekeepers last year to quell widespread fighting triggered by an army mutiny. The result awaits confirmation by an appeals court before Ramos-Horta is formally declared the winner.

The second-round vote was more peaceful, say observers, than the eight-way contest held in April that was marred by complaints of intimidation during the campaign and alleged irregularities in ballot tallies. But the politicking isn't over: Rival camps will face off in June in parliamentary elections that carry far more weight than those for the mostly ceremonial presidency.

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Ramos-Horta told supporters in the capital, Dili, where tens of thousands of displaced Timorese are living in makeshift camps, that five years of hard work lay ahead of him. "I will honor what I told the people in the campaign," he said. "I will work for the poor, with the entire country, to unite it, and heal its wounds." He has also pressed the United Nations to extend its mission and continue training Timorese security forces.

As president-elect, Ramos-Horta becomes head of state of a half-island nation that, despite large offshore oil reserves, has struggled to feed its 1 million people since declaring formal independence in 2002. Until 1999, the former Portuguese colony was under Indonesian rule, a brutal occupation that Ramos-Horta, a former journalist, sought to overturn during 24 years in peripatetic exile as a roving diplomat.

Outgoing president Xanana Gusmao, a former guerilla leader, has formed a political party together with Ramos-Horta to contest parliamentary elections due to be held June 30. That puts him on a potential collision course with Fretilin, the dominant party that nominated Mr. Guterres for president. Analysts say Guterres's defeat shows that Fretilin's reputation was tarnished by last year's unrest and its failure to govern effectively.

"I think Fretilin will concentrate on the parliamentary elections and recognize that it's probably not going to get a majority. It will need to give serious thought to how to attract other parties to join a coalition," says Damien Kingsbury, an associate professor of politics at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and an election monitor in East Timor.

Political divisions are likely to sharpen ahead of the vote, both between rival parties and within Fretilin, whose top ranks are dominated by former political exiles such as its leader Mari Alkatiri, who was forced to resign last year as prime minister. The younger cadre worries that Mr. Alkatiri has become a political liability, but their warnings are being ignored, says Sophia Cason, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"Even with this resounding defeat in the [presidential] elections, I'm not sure they can make reforms to the party or change the leadership," she says.

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