Ex-guerrilla wins E. Timor presidential poll: early count

Evangelisto Santos Meilana
Former East Timor guerrilla fighter Francisco Guterres (L), with his wife after voting on Monday, has won the presidential election in just one round, according to an early count

A former guerrilla fighter has won East Timor's presidential election in just one round, an early count indicated Tuesday, in a sign of growing stability for Asia's youngest nation.

With most ballots counted, Francisco Guterres -- known by his nom de guerre "Lu Olo" -- had received over 57 percent of votes cast in Monday's poll, according to election officials.

That is comfortably above the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a run-off and clinch the largely ceremonial post.

"This is what I was expecting, which is Lu Olo won in the first round and that there won't be a run-off," said Mari Alkatiri, secretary-general of the Fretilin party which is led by Guterres.

Guterres's closest rival, Education Minister Antonio de Conceicao, was on 32 percent in a crowded field of eight candidates, said Acilino Manuel Branco, head of the body overseeing the logistics of the election process.

If final results confirm his victory, Guterres will be sworn in as president in May at a challenging time for the tiny half-island nation 15 years after it gained independence following Indonesia's brutal occupation.

Key oil reserves are running dry and the government is struggling to resolve a long-running row with Australia over lucrative energy fields.

It will be the first time since 2002 that a presidential election in the country has been decided in just one round, if the final results due in several days confirm Guterres has won.

As well as Fretilin, the country's second-biggest party, the ex-combatant had the key backing of independence hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT, the largest party in East Timor.

Analysts said the unified candidacy and Guterres's strong first-round showing boosted stability for a country repeatedly rocked by outbreaks of violence in its short history.

"A strong vote in favour of a candidate is positive," Damien Kingsbury, an East Timor expert from Australia's Deakin University who was in the country as an election observer, told AFP.

The vote -- the first presidential election since the departure of United Nations peacekeepers in 2012 -- ran smoothly and there were reports of only low-level and sporadic unrest in the run-up.

While the presidency is largely ceremonial, it can have a key role in keeping the peace between feuding politicians.

Guterres is from a humble family and like many members of East Timor's political class took part in the bloody struggle against Indonesian occupation.

The vote sets the stage for more important parliamentary elections later in the year that will decide the government and the prime minister.

Indonesia moved into East Timor in 1975 after colonial master Portugal withdrew. During the occupation, around 183,000 people died from fighting, starvation or disease.