DILI, East Timor (AP) — President Jose Ramos Horta, who campaigned tirelessly for East Timor's independence for nearly a quarter-century and helped steer the new, young nation, conceded defeat Monday after a poor showing in weekend elections.
The first round of voting passed peacefully, raising the prospects of a withdrawal of the Australian-led mission of about 400 U.N. peacekeeping troops that was deployed to East Timor in 2006 to quell chaotic unrest.
Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, of the traditionally strong leftist Fretilin party, was leading with 28 percent of the vote, followed by former military chief, Taur Matan Ruak, with 25 percent. That means Ramos Horta, with just 18 percent, has no chance of advancing to an April 21 run-off.
"Congratulations to them," the Nobel Peace laureate told reporters. "And also to the people who supported me throughout my mandate."
Ramos Horta promised to hand over power peacefully to the winner on May 19.
The 62-year-old leader spent nearly half his life in exile, lobbying governments around the globe to endorse East Timor's independence from brutal Indonesian rule. He and his fellow countryman Bishop Carlos Belo were rewarded for their efforts in 1996 with a Nobel Peace Prize.
After the new nation was born in 2002, Ramos Horta served first as foreign minister. He then shepherded it through turbulent and often violent times as prime minister and in 2007, became president.
Few question his commitment, noting that even after surviving an assassination attempt at his Dili compound, he returned quickly to work. But many of those who turned out to vote over the weekend said he failed to follow through on his many and repeated promises to help the "little people."
The country is the poorest in Asia, despite its vast oil and gas reserves. Unemployment is sky high, as are the number of children suffering from malnutrition.
As he cast his ballot Saturday, Ramos Horta told reporters he would "always be a winner."
"If I'm re-elected, I win, I have a wooden cross that I have to carry for the next five years in the service of these great people. If I'm not re-elected, I win my personal freedom."
East Timor's transition to democracy has been a rocky one.
Its leaders have battled massive poverty, social unrest and bitter disputes between soldiers and police that — in 2006 — resulted in widespread looting, arson and gang warfare that left dozens dead and drove 155,000 from their homes.
U.N. troops — headed by Australia — returned soon after to restore order.
Australia's Defense Minister Stephen Smith was pleased by the success of the weekend polls and said — if parliamentary polls planned for June go just as smoothly — discussions could begin about the withdrawal of the 400 international troops.
"Whether the draw-down will start this year, time will tell," he said.
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.