May 8, 2007 / 9:06 AM / 12 years ago

East Timor faces presidential election run-off

DILI (Reuters) - Security in East Timor is sufficient to ensure Wednesday’s presidential polls go smoothly, the United Nations said ahead of a run-off vote between Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta and parliament chief Francisco Guterres.

A Portuguese policeman stands guard as East Timorese electoral workers load ballot boxes onto a U.N. helicopter in Dili, May 8, 2007. REUTERS/Beawiharta

The first-round vote a month ago brought complaints of widespread irregularities, stoking concerns of instability in a poor nation still struggling to heal divisions five years after it won independence from Indonesia.

Campaigning had ended on Tuesday for a cooling-off period and residents of the capital, Dili, went about business as usual.

“We’re satisfied that there’s enough security in place to guarantee that East Timorese will vote in a safe manner on Wednesday,” Finn Reske-Nielsen, deputy U.N. mission chief in East Timor, told a news conference late on Monday.

Ramos-Horta and Guterres — a former independence fighter nicknamed “Lu’Olo” and president of the ruling Fretilin party — won the most votes in the first round but none of the eight candidates obtained a clear majority, forcing a run-off.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who spearheaded an overseas campaign for East Timor’s independence, appeared to have the edge after five of the first-round losing candidates urged their supporters to vote for him.

“The leadership of Fretilin and myself will call on people to accept the result,” the bespectacled Ramos-Horta said after a meeting with outgoing President Xanana Gusmao, the U.N. mission and parliament representatives to discuss the elections.

He said he would honour the results even if they were not 100 percent clean.

FROM STRENGTH TO CRISIS

Outgoing President Gusmao, who will now run for the post of prime minister, called for a focus on the national interest.

“We began to construct a state from scratch and, when we had a faint feeling of strength and stability, we disintegrated into the crisis of last year,” he told a meeting of diplomats.

A regional split erupted into bloodshed last May after the sacking of 600 mutinous troops from the western region. Foreign troops had to be brought in to restore order but 30,000 people remain in camps across Dili, afraid to go home.

Isaura Morques, 20, who lives in a refugee camp across from Dili’s biggest hotel, said she would vote for Ramos-Horta partly because of his international stature.

“I hope there will be no more crises,” she added, holding her nine-month-old niece.

Illustrating the fragile security situation, U.N. police fired shots into the air and tear gas to quell a clash in the Bairu Pite area of the capital, a U.N. police official said.

A witness said the fighting, in which one person was wounded, appeared to be gang-related rather than tied to the election. There have been many such clashes in the past year.

Reske-Nielsen said 1,700 U.N police had been deployed across the country, backed by international troops.

More than 270 foreign observers and about 2,000 local observers would monitor the elections, he added, noting authorities were investigating allegations of intimidation and bribery ahead of Wednesday’s polls.

The U.N. chief electoral officer, Steven Wagenseil, said preliminary results were expected on Friday evening.

East Timor’s presidential post is largely ceremonial but many hope the winner will unite a nation beset by regional rivalry, rebellious security forces and disillusionment among citizens five years after the joyous celebrations of independence.

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