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East Timor Prepares for Thursday Elections - 2001-08-27

In East Timor, election officials and local leaders are praising the campaign for Thursday's election as peaceful, despite some reports of intimidation. Voters in the former Portuguese colony are to choose an assembly that will draft a constitution leading to independence.

The head of East Timor's electoral commission, Carlos Valenzuela, told reporters three days before the vote that the campaign overall has been marked by what he called exemplary civility and peacefulness. "The Independent Electoral Commission was gratified by the generally calm and peaceful way in which the campaign has proceeded to date," he said.

Mr. Valenzuela encouraged political parties, candidates and voters to continue to demonstrate tolerance, which he called an essential element of democracy. Nevertheless, Mr. Valenzuela said there had been some reported incidents. "Stories of a few incidents between different parties have emerged," he said, "and the Independent Electoral Commission officials have asked for clarification." The official said such incidents are illegal, and will be investigated by authorities.

Independent observers say campaigning for Thursday's vote got off to a slow start. But they know that the campaign has become more animated in recent days, and say the U.N.-sponsored transitional administration appears ready for the polling.

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for nearly 400 years, and was occupied by Indonesia when the Portuguese withdrew in 1975.

The leader of the resistance against the occupation, Xanana Gusmao, has been attending many of the pre-election activities. He acknowledges there were incidents, but blames this on a lack of experience by political parties, noting that East Timor is beginning from scratch. He says the referendum two years ago in which voters overwhelmingly endorsed independence was historic, but he says that this week's vote is just as important. "These elections are historic also," he said, "[as] the first free elections in free East Timor."

Election officials say they have registered more then 400,000 voters, and say an estimated 16,000 more who are eligible but not yet registered would be allowed to vote as well. Nearly 1,000 candidates from 16 registered parties are competing. The 88 members of the assembly are to draft a constitution by mid-December that is to lead to independence next year.