East Timor votes in test for young nation

East Timor voted Saturday in the country's second presidential election as a free nation, seen as a key test for a young democracy taking charge of its own security as UN forces prepare to leave.

Polling began in the morning and ended at 3 pm (0600 GMT) with no unrest reported in a contest that pits the Nobel Prize-winning incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta against 11 other hopefuls.

Voting was remarkably organised for a poor and chronically unstable country still traumatised by Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation, which ended with a vote for independence in 1999.

"Everything was orderly and well, smooth and without irregularities or an atmosphere of intimidation," Jamie Gonclaves, a poll station worker, told AFP.

Polling was also markedly peaceful, standing in stark contrast to the deadly pre-election violence that erupted in 2006, which left the country on the brink of civil war.

"There has not been a single incidence of violence, so that's great for the country," Ramos-Horta said after voting in the capital Dili, with coffee-brown ink on his index finger indicating he had exercised his democratic right.

A large turnout was reported nationwide, with some stations having to dip into reserve ballots, election officials said.

At a school house in the village of Balibar, in the cool hills overlooking the capital Dili, voters trickled in about an hour after polls opened at 7 am (2200 GMT Friday), some carrying babies or toddlers and many barefoot.

The vote marks the country's second presidential election as a free nation and is the first in a series of key events in a pivotal period for the country.

In May, East Timor will celebrate 10 years of independence, which came after three years of UN administration. Then, in June, voters will choose a new government in a general election.

At the end of the year the nation of 1.1 million people bids goodbye to UN forces stationed in the country since 1999.

Among East Timor's many problems is its heavy reliance on energy reserves, which account for around 90 percent of state revenues.

The International Monetary Fund calls it the "most oil-dependent economy in the world".

"It is an obligation for every citizen to vote because this is a democracy and we have the right to choose our own leaders," said Sidonia Perreira, a government clerk who walked to the school house with his wife and two small children.

Constitutionally, the presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but its profile has been boosted by Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the independence conflict.

The popular 62-year-old, who survived a 2008 assassination attempt, is the second post-independence president after Xanana Gusmao -- a former anti-Indonesia rebel leader who is now prime minister.

The race for the presidency is largely a three-way contest between Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin party's Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres and former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak, a guerrilla leader during the occupation.

Candidates must garner more than 50 percent of the vote for an outright win, otherwise a run-off will be held in coming weeks.

"There will be no second round. I am confident I will win today," Ruak told reporters shortly after voting at a Dili school crowded with voters, journalists, international observers and a stray dog nursing puppies.

Ramos-Horta won in a second-round of voting against Guterres in 2007, buoyed by the support of Gusmao's Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party.

But this time the party is backing Ruak. Ramos-Horta has been increasingly critical of Gusmao's government, but he said he was not displeased with the prime minister's decision to back his rival.

"I'm very happy he's supporting one of my favourite candidates. If someone supports (Ruak) I'm happy because I admire (Ruak)," he told reporters after voting.

Formal results from Saturday's vote are not expected until early next week.

International observers and representatives from Australia, the European Union and Portuguese-speaking nations were monitoring the polls.

Source: AFP

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