East Timor’s second presidential ballot as a free nation will see two former guerrilla fighters face off in another round of voting, after Nobel peace laureate and East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta lost his re-election bid.
Ramos-Horta, who was the troubled nation’s voice during two decades of Indonesian occupation, conceded defeat yesterday after trailing in third place in the vote seen as a key test for the young democracy.
The election went into a second round, expected to be held on April 16, after none of the candidates in Saturday’s ballot garnered more than the 50 percent of the vote required for an outright win.
“On the stroke of midnight on May 19, I will hand over leadership of the country to the new president, one of the two who are now going for a second round,” Ramos-Horta told reporters in the capital, Dili.
He said he would hand over power “with my conscience completely at ease, because I will be handing over a country that is different from the one I received first as prime minister in 2006 and as president in 2007.”
The elections have so far passed off peacefully in the chronically unstable half-island nation of 1.1 million people, which was pushed to the brink of civil war after pre-poll violence that erupted in 2006 left at least 37 people dead.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday congratulated the people of East Timor, saying he was “heartened that the election was conducted in an atmosphere of order and calm,” his spokesman said.
Opposition figure Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and former East Timor Defence Force commander Taur Matan Ruak — both heroes of the nation’s long war against Indonesia’s occupation — will advance to the final round based on preliminary counts, election official Luiz Fernando Valls said.
Analysts said that the loss by Ramos-Horta, a popular leader who survived a 2008 assassination attempt, and the shift to lower-profile candidates, was part of the nation’s desire to move on from being an international cause.
Lu Olo and Ruak are fellow guerrillas who spent years in the hills and thick jungles, fighting against Indonesia’s brutal 24-year occupation, which ended with a bloody independence vote in 1999.
Guterres, 57, who heads the opposition Fretilin party, which is synonymous with the resistance, lost the presidency to Ramos-Horta in a 2007 run-off. On May 20, 2002, he was given the honor of announcing his nation’s independence.
Ruak, 56, campaigned in his camouflage fatigues, and has vowed to introduce mandatory military service if elected.
Ramos-Horta’s supporters said they were “crushed” that he was out of the race and expressed concern over “tough personalities” vying to become their next president.
“Ramos-Horta is very gentle, unlike the two candidates who are too tough and can be radical. I’m worried they will rule with an iron fist and shove policies down our throats,” 27-year-old housewife Marsela Jos Santos said.
Another voter, housewife Rita Da Silva, 30, said she would be supporting Ruak in the second round.
“Now that my clever diplomat Ramos-Horta is out, I will vote for Taur. Youth crime and violence break out often here, so I hope Taur can help to discipline them,” she said.
The vote is the first in a series of key events in the oil-dependent and impoverished country, which is still traumatized by the long Indonesian occupation.