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East Timor president faces first challenge: parliament

A new battle with exiled leaders now looms for President Gusmao.

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Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao is a figure of such legendary stature here that no viable challenger ran against him for the presidency of the world's newest nation.

Mr. Gusmao, who prefers his nom de guerre, Xanana, took 83 percent of the vote Wednesday. His opponent, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, ran to save East Timor the embarrassment of an unopposed election.

But the struggle for the dashing former guerrilla leader, who spent 15 years in the jungle fighting the Indonesian occupation of the former Portuguese colony, and another seven in a Jakarta prison, has only just begun.

He will lead a tiny, politically immature Pacific island nation that is subject to droughts and only has one native doctor among its 700,000 citizens. It is an overwhelmingly rural country with extremely limited access to media. Most of its basic infrastructure was destroyed by Indonesian soldiers and militia proxies when they pulled out in 1999, after a UN-sponsored referendum on separation.

The government budget of $60 million was entirely paid for by the United Nations and other donors this year. The only real export, coffee, is facing a global slump. As a result, when the UN mission that has governed the country since its 1999 independence referendum hands over full power on May 20, East Timor will remain reliant on international aid.

"I know the expectations are high and the challenges are great,'' Xanana says. "The people have put their trust in me, because they think I can do something for them. But we must be patient. If after 15 years of independence their living standards have risen, then we can say we've achieved something."

Despite his landslide victory, his presidency will be scrutinized. And the party watching most closely is the one he became synonymous with during the 24-year war of independence – Fretilin.

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