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Relative Peace as Polls Close in East Timor Parliamentary Elections

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins

Officials in East Timor say voting to elect a new parliament has been relatively peaceful, raising hopes that the election can bring stability to Asia's newest nation after violence last year nearly toppled the government. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins is in the East Timorese capital, Dili, and brings us this report.

East Timorese flocked to the nation's 700 polling stations Saturday to choose among 14 parties vying to lead a new government.

But the main showdown is between the ruling Fretilin party and the new CNRT party led by the independence hero and former president, Xanana Gusmao.

Few expect either to win an outright majority needed to control the 65-seat parliament. The winner will likely form a coalition government with other parties.

Former Prime Minister and Fretilin Secretary-General Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign last year after he fired a third of the army. That sparked gun battles between rival security forces that led to a wave of gang warfare, arson, and looting.

After voting Saturday, Alkatiri expressed confidence in a Fretilin victory.

"I am confident we won already. I have been traveling around the country, and I know. We fought for independence and we had an experience of governing the country," he said.

Fretilin has ruled East Timor since independence five years ago. The impoverished nation voted to break away from Indonesia's harsh 24-year rule in 1999 but only gained full independence three years later after a period under United Nations supervision.

Many East Timorese blame Fretilin for last year's violence that engulfed the tiny nation of a million people.

Rosa, a woman who sheltered Mr. Gusmao at great risk to her own life when he was a guerilla fighting for the country's independence in 1990, says she completely supports the CNRT.

She says this is a crucial vote and only the CNRT can bring a better future for the East Timorese.

Former prime minister and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta became East Timor's president this year following two rounds of voting.

A long time ally of Mr. Gusmao, he says whichever party wins must try to form a coalition government quickly.

"The party that wins should walk halfway, meet with immediately, meet with the other parties and invite them to form a government. It will be good for the country," he said.

Vote-counting will begin early Sunday morning after all the ballot boxes are transported from polling stations to the thirteen counting centers established in each district capital.

A representative of the nearly 500 international observers and more than 2,400 national observers will travel with the ballot boxes to the counting centers to ensure the poll's integrity.

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