As now widely reported, East Timor’s presidential election on Monday went off peacefully and largely successfully, with a provisional result likely soon.

With eight candidates contesting the presidency, it had been expected that current Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, would win over governing Fretilin’s parliamentary Speaker Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres. But with Fretilin rallies pulling big crowds ahead of the ballot, and Ramos-Horta’s rallies looking under-attended, the race appeared opened up.

Despite these ominous signals, Ramos-Horta is now looking like the front-runner while Lu-Olo was battling to maintain second position. Fretilin will breathe a sigh of relief if Lu-Olo can just manage to scrape into a second round of voting based on no candidate receiving an absolute majority.

This would take a small amount out of the sting that appears coming with Fretilin’s popular rejection. Even some of Fretilin’s membership has deserted its ranks, at least until this electoral cycle is over and they can deliver a coup de grace to the party’s seemingly wounded leadership.

The ballot itself is largely symbolic, as the presidency is mostly ceremonial. What it points to, however, is voter intentions for the coming parliamentary elections, where power really lies. In this, a ‘government of national unity’ under current President Xanana Gusmao as the next prime minister is looking most likely.

But even more importantly, a voter turn-out that now appears to be in excess of 90% in challenging conditions (many roads were all but impassable) has shown a continuing popular embrace of democracy.

Despite pre-ballot disturbances, some low-level intimidation and numerous reports of vote-buying, the result appears confirm that the people voted according to their genuine preferences. Across the towns and villages, voters arrived before 7 am in their finest clothes, often having traveled arduous distances, eager to help shape their own future.

There were minor logistical problems with the vote, and no party was entirely innocent before it. But the process was overwhelmingly free, fair and transparent, and the outcome should be regarded as legitimate.

The question now is whether this outcome — a new president and soon a new parliament — can deliver on the expectations the people of East Timor will place in them.

Peter Fray

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