East Timor to Hold First Free Elections

The election will be an important step for the half-island nation, which has been governed by a United Nations administration since it severed its ties with Jakarta.

U.N. officials expect at least 90 percent of the 425,000 registered voters to participate in the election, which will choose participants in an 88-member assembly. That body will draw up a constitution and set the stage for a presidential election, expected next April.

“I’d be surprised to see voter turnout less than 90 percent and I would not be surprised to see 95, 96 percent,” Finn Reske-Nielsen, the head of the U.N. Development Program in East Timor told Reuters.

The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, more commonly known as Fretlin, is expected to garner the lion’s share of the seats. The party was the main freedom-fighting body during East Timor’s 24 years under Indonesian rule.

Fifteen other parties are participating in tomorrow’s vote.

National figures including rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, widely expected to become East Timor’s president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta and U.N. chief administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello have toured the countryside to drum up voters and encourage partisans not to resort to violence.

Informal results from tomorrow’s vote are expected Sept. 5, with the full official tally coming Sept. 10.

East Timor’s transition from Indonesian province to free nation was bloody and bitterly fought. The independence vote triggered a rampage by pro-Jakarta militants, allegedly armed and supported by Indonesia’s military.

As many as 1,000 were killed and whole towns destroyed during the conflict, which raged until U.N. security forces, led by Australia, arrived. An estimated 250,000 fled the violence, flowing into refugee camps in neighboring West Timor.

Fears of renewed fighting surround tomorrow’s vote, although there have been no reports of violence thus far.

Australian military officials have been put on high alert for the election, especially those stationed near the border between East Timor and the island’s Indonesia-controlled western half. A force of 1,100 troops are patrolling the border around the clock to keep pro-Jakarta militiamen believed to be based in West Timor from disrupting tomorrow’s proceedings.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has closed its border checkpoints between East and West Timor, with plans to reopen them Sept. 5. West Timor’s provincial governor said his government has been preparing for another influx of refugees should violence erupt again.

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