Ex-guerrilla fighter to win East Timor presidency

April 17, 2012 - 7:46 AM
East Timor Election

East Timor president candidate Taur Matan Ruak shows his vote before casting at a polling station in Dili, East Timor, Monday, April 16, 2012. Two former guerrilla leaders were vying for East Timor's presidency Monday, each hoping to steer the young, often-troubled nation after U.N. peacekeeping troops begin their planned withdrawal later this year. (AP Photo/Kandhi Barnez)

DILI, East Timor (AP) — A former guerrilla fighter who became East Timor's army chief is on course to be the new president of Asia's newest and poorest nation, preliminary election results showed Tuesday.

Jose Maria Vasconcelos, known by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak, received 61 percent of the vote in Monday's run-off, according to the preliminary figures. His rival, Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, got 38 percent.

The results released by the National Election Commission still need to be vetted by the court of appeals before they are official. But with such a large gap, it's unlikely there will be any significant change.

East Timor, a half-island nation of 1.1 million people, has had a turbulent past. It voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that had left more than 170,000 dead. Withdrawing soldiers and proxy militias went on a rampage, killing another 1,500 people and destroying much of the infrastructure.

The international community was quick to jump in, deploying U.N. peacekeepers and pouring in billions of dollars. But the road to democracy has been rough, with gang violence and splits in the army and police turning deadly several times and, six years ago, leading to the collapse of the government.

"In many ways, it's seen as an experiment in democracy," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and expert on East Timor. "There's a feeling, if we can't make it happen here, then we're really going to struggle everywhere else."

The challenges ahead are many, however. The country's roads are still in disrepair. There is little access to clean water or health services. And the capital is littered with abandoned, burned-out buildings where the homeless live as squatters. Many people live on 50 cents a day.

But a spokesman for Taur Matan Ruak said he was up to the task.

"He'll be president for all people in East Timor, even those who didn't vote for him," spokesman Fidelis Magalhaes said at a news conference Tuesday in Dili.

The president has no real power, but can act as a moral compass during difficult times. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, elected president after the government collapsed in 2006, helped steer the country back on course after a turbulent period, but his popularity has since faded.

A poor showing in the first round of presidential voting last month forced him to bow out.

"The real question is whether Timor-Leste will be able to emerge fully from a past filled with violence and oppression, and whether it will be able to enjoy a peaceful transition of power," he wrote in a commentary in the New York Times.

"I view the fact that our elections are competitive with a sense of contentment. They are a sign that the country is maturing."

The next few months will be crucial. If parliamentary elections scheduled for July 7 are peaceful, discussions will begin about the withdrawal of 400 international peacekeepers still deployed in the country, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said recently.

They could start heading home before the end of the year, leaving security in the hands of local police.

Taur Matan Ruak, whose name means "two sharp eyes" in the local Tetun language, ran as an independent but had strong backing from Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

He was a teenager when Indonesian troops invaded in 1975, joining the resistance soon afterward. He led guerrilla attacks against occupying troops from the hills, rising quickly through the ranks.

Eventually, he became the rebels' top commander.

After independence, Taur Matan Ruak was accused by the U.N. Special Commission of Inquiry for East Timor of helping fuel social unrest by transferring weapons to civilians. He was never prosecuted, and was instead appointed the military chief in the country. He resigned last year so he could run for president.