Reluctant hero to his followers: Respect the poll

East Timor holds its first-ever democratic elections tomorrow ... to take a step toward full independence.

It's a familiar sight on most campaign trails: press and photographers jostling for position as a young political hopeful steps up to the microphone to address a preelection rally.

But, this time, the cameras aren't trained on the candidate at the podium, Fernando de Araujo. He is leader of the newly founded Democratic Party (PD), one of 16 parties, and five independents, contesting East Timor's first-ever democratic general elections tomorrow.

Instead, the world's media have eyes only for a bearded amateur photographer crouched in front of the stage, intent on recording his homeland's infant steps on the road to democracy and full independence.

José Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmão is no ordinary shutterbug, and he knows it. In elections expected sometime next year, he will probably become the first president of East Timor, for whose independence he has fought the past 25 years.

The territory edges closer toward its acknowledged goal of nationhood tomorrow, with the election of an 88-seat constituent assembly that will write a constitution for what, it is hoped, will become the world's youngest democracy.

More than 425,000 people are eligible to vote tomorrow; East Timor's population is estimated to be 850,000.

The general elections come exactly two years after the territory voted in a referendum to secede from Indonesia (which had annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1975).

East Timorese support for the 1999 plebiscite triggered a violent rampage by pro-Indonesia loyalists that left East Timor in ruins. It has been under a UN mandate since then.

The territory's desire for independence is what brings some 2,000 people to an open-air football stadium in Dili on this warm Sunday afternoon to hear Mr. de Araujo - a former student rebel leader - speak about his party's goals for East Timor.

Despite his best efforts, he can't compete with Mr. Gusmão's hide-and-seek with the media. Finally, de Araujo invites the former guerrilla - and onetime cellmate in a Jakarta prison - to step up to the stage and address the party followers.

Gusmão's appearance at the rally on Sunday in Dili came one day after he announced he would run for election as East Timor's first president.

The decision ends months of speculation, during which Gusmão usually replied that he dreamed only of retirement to "cultivate pumpkins and animals" after so many years of struggle for independence.

The ex-guerrilla had previously said he didn't want the job and preferred to be a photographer. Even his reversal was couched in conditionals. "If the East Timorese don't want me [as president], I will thank God," he concluded.

Gusmão, who isn't standing as a candidate in tomorrow's vote, has tried to remain neutral among the parties. At this rally, he delivers what has become his standard pre-election pep talk: respect the poll results and don't forget to be a good loser.

"This is a process where everyone has a place to sit, to speak out," he tells the starry-eyed crowd, which seems to hang on his every word.

But some East Timorese say Gusmão's overwhelming popularity may be drowning out those voices and holding back the territory's political evolution.

As East Timor prepares to step away from the tutelage of the United Nations - which has run the tiny half-island since 1999 - critics warn that too much emphasis on one leader could even undermine efforts to create institutions capable of adapting to the road ahead.

"We should talk about building an organization, not just relying on one person," said Adirito Soares, a human-rights activist and member of Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), the anticolonial group that transformed into a guerilla separatist force in 1975.

Fretilin, the territory's largest political party, is expected to garner the lion's share (the party says as many as 60 seats) of tomorrow's vote.

Younger activists also question Gusmão's ability to make the transition from rebel commander to nation-builder, something that Gusmão, himself, has publicly questioned.

Other political aspirants are skeptical of the image of a reluctant rebel who says he just wants to take photos and tend goats. Some observers in East Timor say Gusmão is, indeed, ambitious, and can't resist the chance to shape his country's future.

"It's difficult for us to read his political stance. He changes his mind often," said Nuno Rodrigues, an NGO worker and former student activist.

But, Rodrigues adds that, after living as a resistance fighter who relied on ordinary people to feed and clothe his rag-tag army, Gusmão now commands widespread loyalty across the territory. "He's emotionally very close to the people of East Timor," says Rodrigues.

As well, Gusmão, who was captured in 1992 and imprisoned in Jakarta for seven years, has long been a potent international symbol of resistance to Indonesian occupation. He could act as a unifying force under a multiparty system, particularly if problems emerge in the new assembly.

Crucially, he also scores highly with international donors, whose support will be crucial in the coming years for this poor, undeveloped territory, which has relied on outside help for the past two years. The UN is scaling down its operation ahead of full independence, and that will hit East Timorese pocketbooks.

By January, the joint UN-East Timorese civil service will have shed 75 percent of its international staff. Other UN workforces will also be slashed.

Without their spending power, Dili's cafes won't be serving too many expensive capuccinos, and Australian opportunists, who run many of the business services, are likely to pack up and leave East Timor.

"There's going to be a nasty gap here," said Julian Harston, head of transitional planning for the UN Transitional Administration, or UNTAET.

However, UN peacekeepers will stick around to guard the sensitive border with Indonesian-ruled West Timor, where the UN says anti-independence militias involved in the 1999 mayhem still operate with virtual impunity.

The UN currently has 800,000 foreign soldiers in East Timor, but this may be cut in half over the next year, as East Timorese forces are trained in their place.

Still, the mood in Dili is exuberant in the run-up to tomorrow's election, despite memories of the terror that surrounded the last UN-sponsored vote.

Truckloads of party followers cruise the streets of this seafront city waving flags and honking their horns, causing traffic jams but few cross words.

Mari Alkatiri, secretary general of Fretilin and the man considered most likely to become East Timor's first prime minister, surveys the scene: "This," he says "is the most peaceful campaign in the world."

The UN is predicting a large turnout for tomorrow's ballot. Final tallies will be released on Sept. 10, although officials expect clear results by early next week.

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