DILI (Reuters) - Vote counting began on Sunday after the people of East Timor voted to choose a parliament that could help the young, poor nation get back on track after the euphoria of independence was shaken by communal bloodshed last year.
Saturday’s election in the former Portuguese colony and the month-long campaign period preceding the poll passed off mostly peacefully, helped by the presence of 1,700 U.N. police and a force of Australian-led troops.
Under a new system, ballot boxes from polling stations were transferred to district counting centers, using helicopters in remote spots, particularly after heavy rains in parts of the country washed away roads.
“Probably we have counted 4 or 5 percent of the votes,” Maria Angelina Sarmento, a spokeswoman for the national election commission told a news conference.
Fourteen parties contested the vote, widely regarded as a showdown between the ruling Fretilin party and CNRT, a party launched by East Timor’s resistance hero Xanana Gusmao.
More than half-a-million people were eligible to vote and Sarmento said that in the early vote count Fretilin was ahead with 6,039 votes, followed by CNRT with 4,262 votes.
Officials say preliminary results may emerge by early this week. The vote is the third in three months in a nation slightly smaller than Hawaii, following a presidential vote and run-off.
The capital Dili was calm on Sunday with East Timorese walking on the beach-front and going to Sunday mass.
South Africa’s 16-member observer mission said in a statement that East Timor’s election was “peaceful, free and fair”. Nearly 500 foreign observers monitored Saturday’s polls.
After serving as the country’s first president, Gusmao -- a charismatic leader of the resistance to decades of Indonesian occupation that followed Portugal’s withdrawal in 1975 -- now wants the more hands-on post of prime minister.
The Fretilin government sacked 600 rebellious soldiers to trigger violence last May that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes.
Foreign troops were brought in to restore order, but sporadic violence and unrest have continued.
Although the polls appeared to go smoothly, officials noted some problems, including a brief attack on a polling station in Viqueque, while one person was arrested at another voting station in Ermera for carrying arrows.
Mari Alkatiri, secretary general of Fretilin who stepped down as prime minister after last year’s turmoil, has said he was confident his party would win and urged all East Timorese to accept the result.
CNRT spokesman Dionisio Babo also expressed confidence.
Most analysts do not expect either Fretilin or CNRT to win a clear majority in the 65-seat parliament, requiring a coalition to form a government.
President Jose Ramos-Horta told Reuters in an interview on Friday that East Timor’s leaders needed to unite to fight poverty and improve security.
East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 ballot tainted by bloodshed blamed mostly on pro-Indonesian militia and Indonesian military elements.
The predominantly Catholic nation became a full-fledged state in 2002 after a period of U.N. administration.
East Timor is one of the world’s poorest countries but is starting to tap rich energy resources that over time could significantly raise living standards.
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