Tense East Timor braces for presidential vote

The tiny southeast Asian nation goes to the polls Monday, amid hope the vote doesn't trigger more politically motivated violence.

Voters in East Timor go to the polls today to elect a new president, a crucial step back to normality after factional violence last year triggered a political meltdown and the intervention of Australian-led peacekeepers.

At stake is the future of a tiny, battered nation that has struggled to live up to its promise to create a viable state five years after it struck out on its own. Its sudden collapse into anarchy has served as a cautionary tale of the perils of internationally sponsored nation-building in countries laid low by decades of war and upheaval.

Eight candidates – seven men and one woman – are vying for the job, though none are predicted to win an absolute majority. If no one wins outright, the top two will contest a runoff vote next month.

Whoever triumphs will face the challenge of housing more than 30,000 Timorese living in camps in the capital, Dili, who are unwilling or unable to return home amid continuing gang violence. The unrest has ebbed since last year's clashes between rival security forces, which were fueled by squabbles within the ruling elite. But security has yet to be fully restored, despite the presence of 3,000 international police and soldiers who have been unable to capture an escaped rebel Army commander blamed for stirring trouble. Minor violence has also marred the two-week campaign period.

Feuding political leaders

Perhaps the hardest task ahead, say analysts, is to reconcile a divided nation and its political leaders whose intense feuding pushed the country to the brink of collapse. Unless the presidential hopefuls live up to their campaign promises to accept the vote outcome as legitimate, the ballot is likely to increase, not lessen, the tensions roiling a fragile country.

"They must respect the results, regardless of what they are. Political leaders have to start playing by the rules," says Damien Kingsbury, an associate professor of politics at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and an election monitor in East Timor.

The incumbent, Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader who was elected in 2002 as East Timor's first president, has formed a political party to contest parliamentary elections later this year. The frontrunners to replace him are the current prime minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, the parliament speaker, Francisco Guterres, and opposition party leader Fernando de Araujo. All have promised to restore peace and stability if elected president, a position that is less powerful than that of prime minister.

As the candidate of Fretilin, the largest party in parliament, Mr. Guterres can count on a large political machine to deliver votes, particularly in rural districts. But analysts say that the party's image was tarnished by last year's crisis, which forced its unpopular leader, Mari Alkatiri, to resign as prime minister. If its vote crumbles, that would signal a rejection of the party, and of Mr. Alkatiri, its leader, who is eyeing a return to power.

That leaves Mr. Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate and diplomat who is campaigning on his experience in office, and Mr. de Araujo, whose party is weighted toward young voters fed up with the country's Portuguese-speaking elite, who have dominated politics since independence in 2002. Both have sought to position themselves as alternatives to Fretilin, which led the exiled political resistance during more than 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that ended in 1999. Prior to that, the half-island state was ruled by Portugal for four centuries.

Ordinary voters hope a winner can emerge from today's ballot so that politicians can start focusing on the stricken economy. Despite large offshore oil reserves, East Timor is among the word's poorest countries. "The most important for Timor is a president who can bring all sectors together and bring about national unity and hold onto it," says Chris Samson, executive director of LABEH, an anticorruption group in Dili.

For the minor contenders, say analysts, the presidential race is partly a dry run for the bigger legislative prize later in the year. "Some candidates are going into this as a test for parliamentary elections rather than really having a chance to win," says Katherine Hunter of the Asia Foundation.

Angry, jobless youths

While Australian troops have clashed with protesters, much of the street violence is between machete-wielding youth gangs spurred on by chronic unemployment in urban areas. As UN trainers assist Timor's police force to cope with future unrest, an equally urgent priority, say analysts, is to give young Timorese a stake in the future. More than 40 percent of the country's 1 million people are under age 15.

"If the violence forces the new government and leadership to concentrate on this demographic, that would be beneficial. Not just talking about labor-intensive industries to absorb unskilled labor, but also putting more attention on vocational education," says Ms. Hunter.

Mr. Kingsbury, a longtime Timor watcher, says youths are frustrated by the apparent inability of their leaders to put the country's interests first. "Young people look at the squabbling among the old elite and say, 'you've had your chance and you've blown it, so let's move on.' "

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