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East Timor Elections a Success, Say UN Officials


U.N. officials are calling Thursday's elections in East Timor a success. Polls stayed open into the evening to accommodate the huge turnout of voters participating in the country's first free election.

U.N. election officials estimate that 93 percent of East Timor's eligible voters participated in the ballot, which they have already declared a success.

Chief electoral officer, Carlos Valenzuela, describes how he believes the East Timorese will remember the ballot. "[This was] a demonstration of the capacity of the East Timorese people to organize themselves," he said, "to participate and to confront their differences in the context of a multi-party democracy."

This is the first free election in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, which was invaded by the Indonesian military in 1975 and occupied for 24 years. Speculation had arisen that the lack of a democratic tradition in East Timor could lead to violence on the day of the vote, but Mr. Valenzuela says that was not the case. "They can say that election day was a very peaceful day," he said. "People experienced polling like a holiday and no violent incidents were reported."

Officials say there were minor disturbances, such as crowds growing restive due to the long wait to vote. Officials are also investigating an allegation that one polling official out of several hundred may have tried to influence voters.

The ballot was held two years to the day that the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a U.N. supervised referendum. That decision cost the East Timorese dearly, when anti-independence militias, allegedly backed by elements of the Indonesian armed forces, launched a campaign of terror. Hundreds of people were killed; much of the territory left in ruins.

In recent weeks there has been virtually no serious militia activity, which is usually centered along East Timor's border with the Indonesian province of West Timor.

Voters cast their ballots for candidates from among 16 parties, vying for seats in East Timor's constituent assembly. The assembly has 90 days to write East Timor's first constitution, further paving the way for full independence expected early next year.

Official election results are expected on September 10.