East Timorese Go To Polls to Elect President

Tens of thousands of East Timorese waited under the sweltering sun to cast their vote for president in an election many hope will help heal deep divisions within the government and bring stability to the troubled nation. VOA Correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins is in the capital Dili and brings us this report.

East Timorese went to the polls in an election to replace President Xanana Gusmao, the respected independence leader.

More than half a million people were eligible to vote at the country's 700 polling stations, watched by about 2,000 national observers and 200 international observers.

Francisca Freitas expressed the hopes of many East Timorese as she cast her ballot for one of eight presidential hopefuls at a Dili polling station.

She says she is really happy about this election because she hopes it will stop the violence and bring stability.

The spokeswoman for the U.N. Mission in Timor Leste, Allison Cooper, says little violence had been reported.

"So far, reports indicate that voting has gone off without any major incidence of violence or intimidation," she said.

Extra ballot papers had to be delivered by U.N. helicopters and trucks to 11 of East Timor's 13 districts. Cooper said a ballot paper shortage occurred because the number of voters exceeded expectations.

The winner must get more than 50-percent of the vote or face a run-off vote within 30 days.

Nobel Laureate and current Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta is considered a front-runner for president. He says he will accept the will of the people.

"Whatever the verdict of the people, I bow to it. If they decide in their centuries old wisdom ... after more than 30 years of serving them I should retire, I will be more than grateful," he said. "If they decide that I shall carry another cross for another five years, again, I will accept that also."

Horta's competitors include Fernando "Lasama" Araujo, from the Democratic Party, and the popular Fretilin party candidate Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres. He says he believes this election will usher in a new era of stability.

He says the elections offer a new beginning of peace and freedom to the people and will help to build a better future for the country.

East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. They have lived under a cloud of violence and fear during the past year, after the dismissal of a third of the army plunged the nation into chaos.

Violent battles between rival security forces that led to gang warfare forced two-thirds of the residents of Dili into makeshift refugee camps where more than 40,000 still remain.

Relative calm was finally achieved after an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered the country, at the request of the government, where it still remains.

Since then sporadic violence and political upheaval have continued to plague the nation that finally achieved nationhood in 2002, following several years under U.N. supervision.