East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta said yesterday he would seek another term in next month’s polls, as the young nation votes for the first time since an assassination bid that almost killed him.
The election, East Timor’s second as a free country, comes as it marks 10 years since independence and fears have been raised that the fragile stability of the impoverished, but oil-rich nation could be tested.
About 10 presidential hopefuls have now entered the race, including the opposition’s Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and the former head of the armed forces, Major General Taur Matar Ruak.
Insiders say the election is set to turn into a three-way match between the 62-year-old incumbent, Lu Olo and Ruak.
The country has been largely peaceful since 2006, when rioting and factional fighting brought it to the brink of civil war, but there was violence around the 2007 parliamentary election and in February 2008, Ramos-Horta was targeted by assassins.
“After a long period of reflection and listening to international and national political leaders, I have taken the decision to run,” he said.
East Timor won formal independence in 2002, three years after a UN-backed referendum that saw an overwhelming vote to break away from Indonesia, whose 24-year occupation cost an estimated 200,000 lives.
The polls come as UN peacekeepers, stationed in East Timor since the 1999 vote for independence, prepare to withdraw.
In 2007, running as an independent, but with the support of East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and his National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party, Ramos-Horta defeated Lu Olo in a second round ballot.
However, insiders say that Ruak, a close friend and long-time ally of Gusmao, is capable of splitting the opposition Fretilin vote along with Lu Olo.
They say Ruak may also gain the backing of the CNRT if Gusmao switches support away from Ramos-Horta.
Ramos-Horta, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his role in fighting for the country’s independence, last year repeatedly denied he would run for president again.
His Web site said the president’s about-turn came after supporters at a rally in Dili on Monday presented a petition with 120,000 signatures urging him to seek a second term.
The election is a two-round vote. If no candidate garners an outright majority a second round with the two top candidates will be held in April.