More than 1,200 UN forces are ready to intervene in East Timor’s presidential election this weekend if there is an outbreak of major violence, according to the top UN official in the country.
East Timor, which gained formal independence from Indonesia a decade ago, will hold its second presidential poll as a free country Saturday with a line-up that includes the incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate.
Ameerah Haq, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for East Timor, told AFP that the campaign period had gone “remarkably well”.
The peaceful run-up to the election stands in stark contrast to the rioting and factional fighting that erupted in 2006 ahead of elections the following year, which left at least 37 dead and pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Last year the UN officially handed security responsibilities back to to East Timor police, although around 1,200 UN forces remain in the country. The country’s own security forces will officially safeguard the election but UN forces were ready to step up if needed, Haq said.
“The internal security institutions are much stronger, and we are only here to support them. Right now there is capacity within their own security institutions to handle any outbreak of violence,” she said.
“Obviously, if there is something major and widespread we are still here until the end of December.”
UN forces have been stationed on the half-island nation of 1.1 million people since the 1999 vote for independence and are due to pull out at the end of the year.
Twelve candidates are running for the presidency but the race is expected to be a three-way contest between Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin party’s Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak.
Ramos-Horta won in a second-round of voting against Guterres in 2007, buoyed by the support of prime minister Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party.
But this time the party is backing Ruak, amid signs that the president and prime minister no longer see eye-to-eye on many issues. Ramos-Horta has become increasingly critical of Gusmao’s government.
Ruak, who did not run in the 2007 election, is regarded as a hero for his record as a guerrilla leader during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation and is seen as the wild card in Saturday’s poll.
Rallies by Guterres and Ruak have pulled in the largest number of supporters.
Two weeks of campaigning officially came to a halt on Thursday, two days ahead of the polls.
“In our estimation things have gone very well as the campaigning period is concerned,” Haq said, noting that no serious violations or incidents were reported.
Haq said the UN was providing logistical support to the candidates and elections, including helicopter service to transport ballot papers to remote regions of the impoverished nation, which is virtually without infrastructure.