Two former guerrilla leaders were vying for East Timor’s presidency yesterday, each hoping to steer the young, often-troubled nation after UN peacekeeping troops begin their planned withdrawal later this year.
Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and Taur Matan Ruak — running neck-and-neck after East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta was knocked out of the race in the first round of voting — joined small lines forming in the dusty capital, Dili, to cast their ballots.
While both were confident of victory, they also said they were prepared to concede defeat graciously, if necessary.
While the role is largely ceremonial, the new president has the potential to help unify Asia’s newest and poorest nation, which is still recovering from its 1999 break for independence following nearly a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation.
Withdrawing Indonesian troops and their militia proxies killed nearly 1,500, and the road to democracy has been anything but easy. Gang violence and splits in the army and police at times have turned deadly — and six years ago resulted in the collapse of the government.
Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told reporters the lead-up to yesterday’s vote was “extraordinarily calm.”
The homes of at least two political activists were set on fire during campaigning and rocks were thrown last week at Ruak’s headquarters, but police were able to keep the situation under control.
He hoped it would continue that way.
Yesterday’s winner may not have much power, but he has the ability, like Ramos-Horta did, to help lead the country at a crucial time.
Parliamentary elections — to select a new government — will be held on July 7. If peaceful, Australian Minister of Defense Stephen Smith said recently discussions would begin about the withdrawal of 400 international peacekeepers still deployed in the country.
They could start heading home before the end of the year.
Justino Menezes was among more than 700,000 voters eligible to cast ballots at the country’s 650 polling stations yesterday.
Like many others, it was peace and political stability, together with economic development, the 61-year-old farmer wanted most.
“It’s time to move forward,” he said. “And to move forward without fear.”
As was the case in the country’s two previous presidential elections, his choices were all heroes in East Timor’s 24-year freedom fight.
Lu Olo, the 57-year-old candidate for the opposition Fretilin party, spent nearly half his life battling Indonesian rule as a commander in guerrilla army.
However, he is university educated and has been active in politics in recent years.
Ruak, 55, former chief of the guerrilla force, is a relative newcomer and running as an independent. He has the backing of several high-profile figures, including East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmau.