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Last Updated: Monday, 9 April 2007, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Optimism as East Timor votes
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Dili

Australian soldier
Peacekeepers from Australia and New Zealand kept watch
The sun is brutally hot at this time of year in East Timor, so everything - including voting - gets done early in the morning.

Still, as I made my way to a polling station at 0630 I wondered how this election would compare with the extraordinary scenes we witnessed nearly eight years ago.

Then, the people of East Timor were given their first chance to vote freely, in the referendum which led to their independence from Indonesian rule.

The crowds waiting outside polling stations back then were huge. The desperate desire to take part in that historic vote extraordinarily moving.

Independence has been a great disappointment to many, but the crowds waiting to vote in the warm, dawn light for the first presidential election since full independence in 2002 were still impressive.

The visible international presence certainly helped. There were times over the past year when it seemed unlikely East Timor could hold any election, and many voters expressed their fears about another breakdown in security, like the collapse of order they witnessed in the capital, Dili, last April.

East Timorese society is now recognised as a scarred and traumatised one from its tragic past, and fears are easily blown out of proportion

But Australian and New Zealand troops are still here, maintaining the peace, and special Portuguese riot police are taking a tough line against the gangs of youths who have been responsible for much of the destruction in Dili.

Worrying sentiments

The United Nations has significantly strengthened its mission, and is helping to run this election - an implicit admission that it blundered five years ago when it started winding down after East Timor's declaration of independence, insisting the world's youngest country should stand on its own feet as soon as possible.

Voters queue in East Timor
Long queues formed at polling stations
I consistently heard two kinds of sentiments from voters, one encouraging, the other very worrying.

Time and again people expressed their enthusiasm for the election, a touching belief that voting for a new president is an almost magical process that will somehow help ease the tensions which now grip the country.

Turnout was high because people who were so long denied the freedom to vote still cherish it. But the other sentiment I heard a lot this time was one of suspicion and fear, a conviction that trouble lies ahead.

East Timorese society is now recognised as a scarred and traumatised one from its tragic past, and fears are easily blown out of proportion.

Violence fears

The thousands of people who still will not leave the miserable camps dotted around Dili and go home are testimony to that.

But that is what makes the climate of intense insecurity here so dangerous. The old historical enmities that have opened up over the past year now run very deep, with many East Timorese convinced that their rivals will resort to force to resolve their quarrels.

The fact that so many guns were allowed to leak into the civilian population during last year's crisis only reinforces that conviction.

A nun votes in the East Timor election
Election observers reported few problems
The political leadership is not helping. Some of the eight candidates contesting this election have spent the campaign throwing charges of manipulation and intimidation against their opponents, despite the assessment from independent monitors that any such incidents will not affect the outcome.

Some have made grand promises to the people that seem impossible from the relatively powerless office of the president. There has been little talk of co-operation and compromise. And the parliamentary elections due later this year are likely to be contested far more fiercely.

For now the voters of East Timor retain their faith in their democracy, but for how much longer? They have seen little visible development, and they remain at the very bottom of the world ranking of poor countries.

They have seen plenty of violence and some disastrous decision-making by their political leaders.

They will surely need to see some good news soon if they are to keep turning out to vote in such impressive numbers.

East Timor election 'manipulated'
06 Apr 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Poll violence flares in E Timor
30 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Campaigning begins in East Timor
23 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: East Timor
17 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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