East Timor’s second presidential election as a free nation will see two ex-guerrillas compete in a run-off vote tomorrow, after the Nobel Prize-winning incumbent was knocked out in the first round.
Either Francisco Guterres “Lu Olo” or Taur Matan Ruak, both heroes of the nation’s 24-year war against Indonesian occupation, will replace Jose Ramos-Horta, who trailed in third place in a vote seen as a key test for the young democracy.
While the presidency is largely ceremonial it enjoyed a high profile under Ramos-Horta and the election is the first in a series of landmark events for the half-island nation of 1.1 million people.
In May, East Timor will celebrate 10 years of independence, which came after three years of UN administration. Then, in July, voters will choose a new government in a general election.
At the end of the year the impoverished and chronically unstable nation bids goodbye to UN forces stationed in the country since 1999.
The soft-spoken Guterres, 57, who heads the opposition Fretilin party, which is synonymous with the resistance, lost the presidency to Ramos-Horta in a run-off in 2007.
Widely respected for the two decades he spent in Timor’s hills and thick jungles fighting the occupation, Guterres topped the March 17 first round with nearly 29 percent of the vote.
However, in election campaigns, he has strived to purge his guerrilla identity, stressing that his priorities included figuring out “how we can make light in every house, how we can get justice for all [Timorese] people.”
“I can’t go back to the history of what happened, but we have to, as a nation, move forward,” he said in a recent campaign speech, referring to the war that left an estimated 183,000 people dead through genocide, disease and starvation.
Ruak, whose name means “piercing eyes” in the local Tetum language, is the former military commander of Fretilin’s military wing.
The 55-year-old, running as an independent, but backed by East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s powerful National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor party, won about 26 percent of the first-round vote.
Ruak, who has vowed to introduce mandatory military service if elected, is accused by the UN of illegal weapons transfers in 2006, when rioting and factional fighting had the nation on the brink of civil war.