- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

AILEU, East Timor On a soccer field in East Timor's central mountains, thousands came to hear Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao make his campaign pitch.

Soon to become the world's newest country, East Timor is holding its first presidential election on Sunday, and the former guerrilla leader is the overwhelming favorite.

Mr. Gusmao joked with the crowd a bit, then he got down to the business of politics, putting himself up as the people's watchdog against governmental abuses.

"If you vote for me, I promise to carry whatever burden you put on my shoulder," he told the cheering crowd in Aileu, 30 miles south of the capital, Dili.

Now under U.N. administration, the half-island territory of East Timor will become formally independent May 20. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in a U.N.-organized referendum in August 1999 to end 24 years of Indonesian military occupation after 350 years of Portuguese colonial rule.

The plebiscite was followed by a campaign of killing, burning and pillaging by Indonesian troops and their militia supporters, but international peacekeepers intervened a month later to restore order.

The charismatic Mr. Gusmao is virtually assured victory in the presidential race. The only other candidate, veteran political leader Francisco Xavier do Amaral, has run a low-key campaign and isn't expected to pose much of a challenge.

Mr. do Amaral was appointed East Timor's first president in 1975 when the Portuguese colonial rulers pulled out. He served for nine days before Indonesian forces invaded on Dec. 7, 1975.

Mr. Gusmao, a former soccer player and journalist, joined the armed resistance against Indonesian rule and commanded the guerrilla forces in the 1980s. He was captured in 1992 and imprisoned in Jakarta for seven years. He is seen as a man of the people.

"The whole world is impressed by your leadership," said Marcus da Costa, a youth leader in the crowd at Aileu. "We want you to continue."

But Mr. da Costa and others voiced their anxieties that the presidency might change Mr. Gusmao. "We are afraid that you will surround yourself with security and we won't be able to reach you," Mr. da Costa said.

Mr. Gusmao tried to reassure the crowd, telling the people if he wins he will devote his five-year term to being their "eyes, ears and mouth."

As the election campaign winds down, there have been reports of tension between Mr. Gusmao and his former political party, Fretilin, which controls the legislature.

Mr. Gusmao has criticized the party, claiming that government officials he didn't identify are leading lavish lifestyles while many East Timorese go without basic health care and education.

Still, most observers say they believe the two camps will be able to work together. "We are optimistic and fully confident that East Timorese leaders will show the same maturity and confidence as they have done throughout this process," said Colin Stewart, the U.N. political affairs chief.

The biggest challenge facing the country of 650,000 is setting up its political and legal infrastructure. In August, voters elected an 88-member Assembly to draft a constitution, which was officially approved last month.

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