Voting starts in East Timor presidential run-off

By Ahmad Pathoni

DILI, May 9 (Reuters) - Polling stations opened on Wednesday in East Timor for a presidential run-off vote in the tiny nation between Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta and parliament chief Francisco Guterres.

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.

Dili appeared calm and at a polling station in an elementary school in the capital voters were quietly queuing to vote.

"I voted for the future of the country. I hope the new president can build Timor Leste better," said Albina Pereira, 22, after casting her vote, referring to the official name of East Timor.

Security appeared relaxed with only a couple of U.N. police at the polling station where Guterres is due to cast his vote later.

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 won a clear majority, forcing a run-off.

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

The bespectacled Ramos-Horta has said he would honour the results even if they were not 100 percent clean.

Outgoing President Xanana Gusmao, who will now run for post of prime minister, called on Tuesday 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, too afraid to go home.

The U.N. mission in East Timor has said 1,700 U.N police would be deployed across the country for the elections, backed by international troops.

More than 270 foreign observers and about 2,000 local observers would monitor the elections.

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.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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