05/09/2007, 00.00
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Poor voter turnout for second round of presidential poll

Analysts are not really veering one way or the other in predicting the outcome of the runoff between Ramos Horta and Guterres. Few voters have gone to queue outside polling booths, perhaps discouraged by allegations of cheating and intimidation that marked the first round a month ago. Provisional results are expected tonight.

Dili (AsiaNews) – Polling booths have opened in the young, predominantly Catholic state of East Timor, where the second round of the presidential election is under way. The poll pits the premier and Nobel Laureate José Ramos Horta against the Speaker of Parliament, Francisco "Lo-Olo" Guterres, a former pro-independence guerrilla fighter of Fretilin, the majority party. Around 520,000 people are eligible to vote in around 700 booths set up across the country. This is the first election since the ex-Portuguese colony gained independence from occupation by Indonesian forces, a state of affairs hard won in 2002 after three years of bloody clashes.

The current ad interim premier has pledged to tackle the serious economic crisis by facilitating direct foreign investment; Guterres, meanwhile, has focused his electoral manifesto on the maintenance of security in the country, where violence between rival factions has continued to rage intermittently since 2002. Although Ramos Horta is the favourite, experts have warned that the huge support still enjoyed by Fretilin in rural areas of the island should not be underestimated. The Catholic bishops of Dili and Baucau last month encouraged the faithful to “go to vote and to choose” the leader of the country “with their conscience”.

However, the vote is unfolding in a climate of uncertainty and apprehension. The many accusations of cheating and intimidation that marked the first round on 9 April seem to be discouraging the population from going to vote. The turnout so far appears to be rather less than the high participation registered a month ago, confirmed to be 81%. The booths are guarded by around 4,000 policemen of the United Nations and local security forces, backed by the peace contingent dispatched last year to stem violence. Provisional results are expected by tonight.  

The new head of state will step into the shoes of Xanana Gusmao, the ex-guerrilla leader who is interested in running for prime minister in June parliamentary elections.

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