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East Timorese Set to Elect First Assembly - 2001-08-28


Campaigning is has ended in East Timor, where voters go to the polls Thursday to elect an assembly that is to draft a constitution for the soon to be independent nation. Officials are hoping for a massive voter turn-out.

The campaign for what local leaders are calling Timor's first free elections ended with a series of exuberant rallies. The country's largest party, Fretilin, which led the struggle for independence, organized a massive convoy of trucks and buses to the city's main sports stadium. Before a crowd of thousands, a band played freedom songs and a young child spoke about the struggle for nationhood.

Earlier, the head of the U.N transitional authority in East Timor, Sergio Viera de Mello, underscored the progress made after the devastation suffered two years ago after the referendum on independence.

In 1999, much of East Timor was sacked by militias advocating assimilation with Indonesia, which invaded the region in 1975 after Portuguese colonial forces withdrew.

When asked if the two years since the violence were enough time to develop structures of government, Mr. de Mello says after 500 years of dominance, no election can be too soon. "It would have been extremely difficult for us to continue to administer East Timor with appointed bodies," he said. "Sooner, rather than later, the Timorese would have demanded the opportunity of electing their own representatives through direct democratic vote."

Mr. de Mello praised the lack of violence during the campaign and appealed to Timorese to respect the results of the poll.

The leader of the independence struggle, Xanana Gusmao, discussed the worries of the short transition period in an interview with VOA. Mr. Gusmao, who is widely expected to become the first president, said the transitional period has been short but one cannot wait for perfection. "Right after the independence will be the real capacity-building process and we believe we will have the assistance from the international community, from the United Nations also, in the areas where we are not yet ready." he said.

Election officials say more than 400,000 voters are eligible for Thursday's poll. They are to elect an 88 member constituent assembly that is to draft a new constitution by December.

U.N. officials say if all goes well, they expect presidential elections and full independence in less than a year.