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Democratic progress: East Timor election proves peaceful

The first-round vote of East Timor's presidential election went smoothly, defying low expectations based on the tiny country's violent history.

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East Timor presidential front-runner Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres speaks during a press conference in Dili, East Timor, March 19. Guterres, of the traditionally strong leftist Fretilin party, is currently leading in the vote counting of this month's election.

Kandhi Barnez/AP

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Dark clouds hung over this young nation the day before a much-anticipated presidential election on March 17. With jittery analysts playing up the potential for conflict, they appeared a powerful portent of the way polls could play out in a tiny country known for its far larger history of violence.

But more than a week after the polls closed peacefully, and ballot counting wrapped up with little contestation, East Timor appears to have cleared the first hurdle toward standing on its own.

The country, which is grindingly poor, has been under the watchful eyes of a United Nations’ stabilization mission since factional fighting between police and security forces broke out in 2006, prior to the last election, killing 37 people and driving more than 100,000 from their homes.

That conflict came just four years after UN forces left for the first time, having governed the country in the rocky years after a bloody vote for separation from Indonesia in 1999.

Now, two men remain in the contest for president, which will go to a second round in mid-April. In the lead is Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, head of the hardcore leftist Fretilin Party, followed closely by Jose Maria Vasconcelos, a former armed forces commander popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak (Two Sharp Eyes) for his time spent devising military strategy against a brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation.

Both are decidedly different from incumbent, Jose Ramos-Horta, who was knocked out in the first round. The Nobel laureate who led the resistance against Indonesia from overseas spent much of his presidency advocating for the country on the international stage. Some political observers say Mr. Ramos-Horta’s lackluster campaign, which paled against the flashy posters and flag-waving parades of his competitors, hurt his re-election chances. So did an apparent rift with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, whose endorsement went to Mr. Ruak.

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