Subject: E. Timor presidential candidates hold debate

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

East Timor presidential candidates hold debate

By Joanne Collins

DILI, East Timor, April 11 (Reuters) - East Timor's two presidential candidates held a broadcast debate on Thursday showing how far the tiny territory has come in its struggle for democracy after centuries of foreign occupation.

The debate's symbolism was probably more important than its content, since the vast majority of Timorese are expected to pick independence hero Xanana Gusmao when they vote on Sunday.

Standing side-by-side and speaking in Portuguese -- the language of former colonial ruler Portugal but which many of Timor's youth barely understand -- the two men discussed a range of topics for two hours. At the end, they embraced.

Around 100 students staged a rowdy demonstration outside the theatre, demanding to join the debate, open only to the United Nations, local officials and the media.

Both candidates later went out and addressed the students, whose number by then had swelled to 250, in the local language Tetum.

Yet to many Timorese the vote itself is a milestone to be celebrated before the new president gets down to the task of rebuilding East Timor, attracting investment and reconciling communities torn apart by the orgy of violence that followed the territory's vote to break from Indonesian rule in 1999.

"...They are electing their first president in how many hundred years, so that is something really well and truly to celebrate," Senator Vicki Bourne, part of a team of Australians who will observe the poll, said in Canberra on Thursday.

Officially the poll results will be announced on April 17, although indications of the winner could appear on the 16th.

East Timor has been under U.N. administration since the landslide referendum in 1999 prompted pro-Jakarta militias with backing from the Indonesian military to rampage, leaving much of the half island territory in ruins.

The United Nations estimates more than 1,000 people were killed before and after that ballot. East Timor will formally declare independence on May 20.

GUSMAO-FRETILIN CONFLICT

Leaving out the invective of Western presidential debates, Gusmao and his opponent Francisco Xavier do Amaral treated each other with warmth as they debated how to run East Timor in a small lecture theatre at Dili's national university.

Many observers have raised concerns about the potential for conflict between the government and Xanana due to festering tensions between him and the majority party Fretilin.

But U.N. political officer Colin Stewart said he felt the two had managed to smooth over certain issues in recent days.

The debate was in Portuguese, chosen as East Timor's official language instead of Tetum, which is regarded as too limited for the modern world, and Bahasa Indonesia, a symbol of Jakarta's harsh and unwelcome 24 years of rule.

"I will go to the people and bring their aspirations to the government," said Gusmao during the debate, broadcast live on local radio and scheduled to be shown also on television.

A more likely statesman than his opponent, the 55-year-old Gusmao was ushered into the venue flanked by a number of burly security guards and a growing team of aides.

The soft-spoken poet has often seemed a reluctant president-in-waiting who would prefer breeding farm animals and pottering around in a garden to leading his troubled nation.

Some 430,000 Timorese are eligible to vote in Sunday's election, the last major step before the territory formally becomes the newest country of the 21st Century.

Standing at a lectern draped in Timorese textiles, Gusmao said he would respect the constitution and not interfere with the democratic process if elected president.

Wearing a white shirt and tie, he appeared more relaxed than Amaral, dressed in a suit and constantly mopping his brow.

Some analysts say Gusmao could win up to 80 percent of votes.

"From the resistance to independence Xanana has been my leader and everybody's leader in East Timor," 42-year-old fishmonger Manuel Coreira told Reuters in Dili.


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