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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
East Timor's rough ride ahead
East Timorese voters
The tiny new state faces huge problems
Richard Galpin,  BBC reporter

East Timor's first ever presidential vote - praised by international and local observers as free, fair and peaceful - marks the final step before East Timor becomes fully independent next month.

As was widely expected, independence hero Xanana Gusmao won a landslide victory, with almost 83% of the vote.

Last August, the people voted for an assembly which will become the first parliament.

So the stage is now set for the formal handover of power in the capital, Dili, by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the first minutes of 20 May.

Dependence culture

At that moment, the UN transitional administration that has been running East Timor since it broke away from Indonesia in 1999, will cease to exist. East Timor will be proclaimed as the first newly independent nation of the millennium.

 Xanana Gusmao
Gusmao is not known for his gentle style of leadership
But speaking at his first news conference as president-elect, Mr Gusmao made clear that the transition to independence will not be easy after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule followed by almost 25 years under the Indonesian military.

"The next five years will constitute a great challenge, not only for our government but for all of civil society and all the great democratic institutions of our country," he said.

Besides never having governed itself before, East Timor will also have the dubious distinction of being one of the world's poorest countries.

It is a half-island nation - West Timor remains part of Indonesia - with a small economy left in ruins by retreating Indonesian troops and their militias following the referendum on independence.

Whatever the soldiers and militiamen could not take with them, they destroyed.

Villages and towns were burnt to the ground, the infrastructure taken apart and more than 1,000 people murdered.

Since the UN took control in October 1999, much has been rebuilt. But even more remains to be done.

Independent Timor will continue to be highly dependent on international assistance

Plans for receiving steady revenue streams from oil and gas in the Timor Sea have still not been realised. Negotiations with neighbouring Australia have become bogged down.

And other revenue-earners such as high-quality coffee will not provide sufficient money for the massive investments needed to build the education and health systems and create jobs.

Unemployment is an acute problem, particularly in the capital, Dili.

Independent Timor will continue to be highly dependent on international assistance especially as there is such a skills shortage within the small population.

But there are at least signs that one other serious cause for concern - that of political instability after independence - may now be diminishing.

Potential for friction

Both the president-elect, Mr Gusmao, and the prime minister-in-waiting, Mari Alkatiri, have gone out of their way in recent days to reassure the population that they will work together despite a long-running personal dispute.

Mr Alkatiri, leader of the dominant political party, Fretilin, was one of the first to publicly congratulate Mr Gusmao on his election victory.

"What I want to declare here is that if I'm part of the government and if I'm prime minister of this new government, then I will do all in my power to create a sound relationship between the president and the parliament and the government, within the spirit of cementing national unity and democracy," he said.

Mari Alkatiri
Alkatiri has made clear his goodwill depends on getting the job of premier
But it is likely there will still be tensions between the two men.

Especially as Mr Gusmao - who has a reputation for being headstrong and unpredictable - intends to be a proactive president despite having little power under the new constitution.

He has emphasised on many occasions that he wishes to be a "people's president", listening to their problems and making sure the government responds appropriately.

But he believes this will be a constructive role helping build a vibrant democracy.

"We are united in one goal... to serve the interests of our people," he said after the final election result was announced. "And of the small differences [between us] I think they are a very healthy means to promote more involvement and participation in our society."

In private, UN officials in Dili believe it will be a rough ride after independence.

One even said East Timor could collapse because of political mismanagement.

But, overall, the official believes it is more likely the new country will somehow "muddle through".

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See also:

17 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
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