Report – By Michael Bachelard in Dili
A military man recommended by the United Nations for criminal prosecution six years ago seems almost certain to become the new president of East Timor.
Former commander of the armed forces Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, universally known as Taur Matan Ruak (or ”Two Sharp Eyes”), was well ahead in provisional counting and is expecting to be declared the winner in the second round of the country’s presidential election.
With more than 60 percent of the vote counted, Ruak was up by 61 percent to Francisco ”Lu Olo” Guterres’s 39 percent.
It appeared he had defeated his rival Guterres, from the former revolutionary Fretilin party, by an unexpectedly large margin. Guterres had polled highest in the first round.
However, on early figures, the turnout for the poll was disappointingly low among the 626,503 enrolled voters turning up yesterday, perhaps put off by the need to travel back to their home villages to vote.
The final result will not be known until today, but a spokesman for Taur Matan Ruak, journalist Jose Belo, last night attributed the apparent win to the candidate’s energy in visiting and campaigning in 152 villages in the past six months.
The victory was sealed in the country’s western districts, known to be hostile to Fretilin, but Belo said Taur Matan Ruak had even claimed wins in villages inside Fretilin territory.
A spokesman for Guterres acknowledged on an early count that it would be difficult for the Fretilin candidate to win.
Belo said Taur Matan Ruak’s priorities were to look after veterans of the conflict and widows, to help the large number of young people without work, partly through compulsory military service, and to spread the wealth from urban to rural areas.
Taur Matan Ruak was a popular candidate because of his military background in a country that values heroes of the past.
Ranked a major-general, he was the last military commander of the military resistance force Falintil before East Timor became independent from Indonesia, and commander of the country’s armed forces when they were formed in 2001, after independence.
He stepped down from that role in October last year. However, his campaign posters depicted him in military-style uniform.
East Timor’s president has a role in appointing the prime minister.
He can also veto legislation that is against the national interest.
The election marks the 10th anniversary of East Timor becoming independent.
If significant conflict can be avoided, both the UN security forces and the Australian and New Zealand army contingents here are expected to go home later this year, allowing the new democracy to police itself.
Taur Matan Ruak won 26 percent in the first round, but picked up a large portion of the support of outgoing president Jose Ramos-Horta, and Democratic party candidate Fernando ”Lasama” de Araujo, both of whom were knocked out in the first round.
But Taur Matan Ruak’s history is controversial. In 2006, East Timor degenerated into an armed struggle between various factions of the army and the police force.
Thirty-eight people died and 150,000 were displaced, prompting the country to invite in a UN team to provide security, and another to launch a special commission of inquiry.
That inquiry recommended Taur Matan Ruak be prosecuted under the criminal code for his role in distributing army weapons to 206 civilians in May 2006. The weapons were then used during the unrest.
”Those weapons were distributed by and/or with the knowledge and approval of” people, including Taur Matan Ruak, the UN report found.
”The commission recommends that these persons be prosecuted for illegal weapons transfer.”
Taur Matan Ruak was not prosecuted, and said at the time he had been acting on the orders of the defence minister.
Michael Bachelard was reporting for The Sydney Morning Herald.