East Timor Election Passes Peacefully

There were no reports of violence at any of the 248 polling stations set up across the half-island territory.

Officials with the United Nations, which has headed East Timor’s transitional government since the bloody 1999 end to its 24 years as an Indonesian territory, say 93 percent of East Timorese voters headed to the polls today.

Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime East Timorese independence leader, applauded his people’s efforts.

“My work for 24 years is done,” he told the BBC. “People have come in freedom without violence to vote today.”

Around 425,000 East Timorese above the age of 17 were eligible to participate in the vote. Informal election results are expected by Sept. 5, with a full official tally coming Sept. 10.

Today’s vote was set to choose the 88 members of a new East Timorese legislature. Once seated, that body will draw up the country’s constitution and determine when further elections should be held.

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 were represented on the ballot.

Xanana Gusmao, a popular resistance leader widely expected to become the country’s first president, urged voters in the enclave of Oecussi yesterday to participate in the vote.

“Step forward to vote for a new future,” he said. “This is the path to democracy.”

Gusmao ended months of speculation Saturday by announcing he would run for the nation’s top office. That election is expected early next year.

East Timor’s transition from Indonesian province to free nation was bloody and bitterly fought. The independence vote, held two years ago today, 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.

Today, more than 2,500 local police officers were stationed at polling stations to keep order.

Meanwhile, Australian military officials were 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 patrolled the border around the clock to keep pro-Jakarta militiamen believed to be based in West Timor from disrupting today’s proceedings.

Indonesia 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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