DILI (Reuters) - East Timor’s presidential election looked like it was heading toward a run-off between Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta and another former rebel-turned-politician, the election commission said on Tuesday.
Polls passed peacefully on Monday with only fairly minor glitches reported. But another round of voting could set the stage for more of the instability that has beset one of the world’s youngest and poorest nations in the past year.
Eight candidates contested the vote, including Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who spearheaded an overseas campaign for independence from Indonesia.
Monday’s turnout appeared to be high and, although official results are not due until next week, preliminary results have started emerging.
Ramos-Horta, the Democratic Party’s Fernando de Araujo and veteran politician Francisco Xavier do Amaral were ahead in the capital Dili, where 90,000 voters out of East Timor’s over half a million electorate live, according to preliminary figures.
“We can say that Mr. Ramos-Horta and La Sama are in a close race. Probably we’ll have a second round,” election commission spokesman Martinho Gusmao told reporters.
“La Sama” is the rebel nicknames of De Araujo who spent six years in an Indonesian jail for his resistance against Jakarta.
The spokesman said Ramos-Horta had a major lead in Dili after 20 percent of the votes had been counted but ballots from the strongholds of Francisco Guterres, the candidate of the ruling party Fretilin, in remote areas were only trickling in.
Fretilin disputed some early assessments and said its own counting showed Guterres had about 40 percent of the votes.
Fretilin spokesman Filomeno Aleixo also told reporters the party would file a complaint over alleged irregularities and fraud in Monday’s poll that it said worked against Guterres.
“We are ready to accept all results as long as the process is transparent, fair and did not favour anyone but the nation.”
Ramos-Horta, who has the highest international profile, has weaker support among rural voters than Guterres or De Araujo, who has campaigned on the fact he comes from a poor background like most East Timorese.
The Suara Timor Leste newspaper also said Ramos-Horta was winning convincingly in Dili, while the preliminary standings of candidates appeared mixed in some regional areas outside the capital contacted by Reuters.
Over half a million people were eligible to vote in the election, which outgoing President Xanana Gusmao described as a chance to demonstrate his nation was not a failed state.
If no one wins more than half the vote, a run-off will be held, a scenario some analysts see as likely.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the vote in a statement from a spokesman.
“The Secretary General is heartened that the election was conducted in a general atmosphere of order and calm, and that the initial indications show high voter turnout,” a statement said.
Supporters of rival candidates clashed during campaigning last week, injuring more than 30 people and prompting international troops to fire tear gas and warning shots.
But over the election itself, few acts of violence or intimidation were reported by poll observers. Foreign troops patrolled streets in small numbers in Dili on Tuesday.
Hideaki Asahi, chief of the Japanese monitoring mission, said the election was “free and fair under international standards”.
Campaigns had focused on how to reunite East Timorese, split by a regional divide that erupted into bloodshed last May after the sacking of 600 mutinous troops from the western region.