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Little Suspense in East Timor Presidential Election - 2002-04-14

East Timor is gearing up for its first presidential election since voting to break free of Indonesian rule two and a half years ago. But there is little suspense about the outcome of the race, with former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao expected to win by a landslide.

Xanana Gusmao's victory is such a near certainty that the only other candidate in the race has said he is already resigned to losing.

But Mr. Gusmao says the presidency is a job he does not want. He only reluctantly agreed to become a candidate after what he said was huge pressure by the East Timorese and by the international community.

Because of that reluctance, to some it might seem like an unorthodox campaign. Mr. Gusmao is running as a candidate for nine political parties. That way, he says, he can serve as a unifying figure for the East Timorese people, who have little experience with multi-party politics.

Jim della Giacoma, the East Timor representative of the U.S. organization, National Democratic Institute, says Mr. Gusmao's campaign reflects that philosophy. "And in his campaigning before crowds around the country he has again and again stated that he sees his role as being a figure that would bring the aspirations of the people to government, and be an advocate of the people's interest, recognizing the government policy is made by the ministers, the council of ministers, and legislation is made by the parliament," he says. "And in many ways he gives a civic education lecture about different roles of the different institutions and recognizing that his role as president if elected would be a very limited one."

Mr. Gusmao became a hero to many East Timorese for his years as a guerrilla leader.

The rebel group fought Indonesia's occupation of East Timor for 24 years, until the United Nations supervised the referendum that brought the territory its independence in 1999.

The presidential election comes just five weeks before East Timor achieves full independence. The new president will be sworn in at midnight, at the start of May 20. Then the United Nations, which has administered East Timor, will hand over power to the new government.

Many observers say more important than the outcome of the poll is the question of whether East Timor leaders can turn the corner from resistance fighters to statesmen.

Joao Saldhana is from the East Timor Study Group, a think-tank based in the capital Dili. "I think they're undergoing the transition process right now. I believe that some of them do not have experience in running a country. There is a change of attitude and quite some learning process for them as well," he says. "To the extent it will succeed, I don't know. We will see in the coming years."

Making that transition may prove critical. East Timor still needs millions of dollars in financial assistance. With other troubled nations around the world needing help too, East Timor leaders will have to prove they are committed to nation-building if they want aid to continue to come. "East Timor will need to be very conscious of its place in the world and the competing priorities of other countries. In many ways the spotlight has moved off East Timor, it's not receiving the attention it did in 1999, and they will have to manage very prudently the assistance they receive to reassure donors it's being put to good use," says Mr. della Giacoma.

Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1975, after the Portuguese government gave up its colonial rule of the territory. During Jakarta's rule, East Timor's economy languished. In the weeks before and after the 1999 independence vote, pro-Indonesia militias pillaged and burned most of the territory, leaving its economic infrastructure devastated.

East Timor citizens start voting at 7:00 in the morning Sunday. Their new president will serve a five-year term.