East Timor headed toward a run-off presidential vote Wednesday after partial election results showed the top three candidates in a near dead heat — a situation that could prolonged this fledgling nation’s political instability.
The Election Commission said that with about 70 percent of the votes counted, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and rivals Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres of the left-wing Fretilin party and resistance-leader-turned-politician Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo each had roughly 21 percent.
With a margin of more than 50 percent needed for an outright win, a run-off between the two top vote getters on May 8 was all but certain.
“Everything indicates a second ballot,” Ramos-Horta told reporters, urging all candidates to respect the final tally to be released on April 19. “Whatever the outcome, we must all honor it and work towards a peaceful acceptance.”
East Timor was heralded as a success in nation-building when it formally declared independence from Indonesia in 2002. But it descended into chaos last year after then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri fired a third of the tiny army, provoking gunbattles between rival security forces that spiraled into gang warfare and looting.
At least 37 people were killed and some 155,000 fled their homes before the government collapsed.
The election is seen as a gauge of support for a plan by Ramos-Horta and his close ally, outgoing President Xanana Gusmao — who will run for prime minister — to seize control of Parliament from the traditionally popular Fretilin party.
The left-wing party, which has said it would accept nothing short of victory, on Tuesday claimed their own tally from polling stations nationwide showed 40 percent of votes counted had gone to their candidate, party official Jose Manuel Fernandes said.
Ramos-Horta, who won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for championing East Timor’s struggle to end decades of brutal Indonesian rule, replaced Alkatiri as prime minister last year. Though by far the best-known of the eight candidates, turnout at his recent election campaign rallies was lower than expected.
East Timor was a Portuguese colony for more than three centuries before it was invaded by Indonesia in 1976. Insurgents spent the next 24 years fighting the occupation, a struggle Ramos-Horta championed from exile.
When its people voted for independence in 1999, Indonesian troops and their militia allies went on a rampage, killing more than 1,000 people and razing Dili to the ground.