Runoff vote likely in East Timor
Fears arise of return to disorder
DILI, East Timor -- East Timor's presidential elections appeared headed toward a runoff yesterday, raising fears of prolonged instability in a young nation that nearly descended into civil war a year ago.
Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta, who received the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for championing East Timor's struggle to end decades of brutal Indonesian rule, initially had been seen as the favorite for the five-year presidency.
But public disillusionment with the government has grown, and no clear winner among eight candidates emerged in early ballot counting. An outright majority was needed to avoid a runoff, which would be held next month.
East Timor was heralded as a success in nation-building when it formally declared independence in 2002, but descended into chaos last year after Mari Alkatiri, then prime minister, fired a third of the tiny army, provoking gun battles between rival security forces that spiraled into gang warfare and looting.
At least 37 people were killed and some 155,000 fled their homes before the government collapsed.
Peace largely returned with the arrival of nearly 3,000 international peacekeepers, but there has been sporadic unrest. Tens of thousands of refugees have yet to return home, and the country remains desperately poor, with 50 percent unemployment.
"If I win, I will bear a wooden cross almost as heavy as Christ's," said Ramos-Horta, 57, who said he would prefer to retire, write books, and travel. "If I lose, I will win my freedom."
Angry protests broke out last month when Australian troops tried to capture popular rebel leader Alfredo Reinado in a raid backed by Ramos-Horta. Reinado escaped, but four of his followers were killed.
Ramos-Horta has also been criticized for failing to imprison Rogerio Lobato, former interior minister, accused of helping arm civilian militias last year .
National Election Committee spokesman Martinho Gusmao said three candidates emerged ahead: Ramos-Horta, running as an independent, Francisco Guterres, a former guerrilla fighter and a member of Alkatiri's Fretilin party, and Fernando de Araujo of the Democratic Party, another resistance leader.
Preliminary results were expected tomorrow and the final tally April 19.
Officials called the election -- the second in the country of fewer than 1 million people -- a success, citing high voter turnout and prevailing calm, though some people said candidates tried to buy their support.
Australian and New Zealand soldiers patrolled hot spots in Dili by truck and foot.
"Citizens showed up in large numbers to cast their votes, happily, peacefully," said UN Chief Electoral Officer Steven Wagenseil.