Francisco Guterres wins East Timor presidential poll: Early count

East Timor presidential candidate Francisco Guterres speaking to the media after casting his vote in Dili on March 20, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

DILI (AFP) - A former guerrilla fighter has won East Timor's presidential election in just one round, an early count indicated on Tuesday (March 21), 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 per cent of votes cast in Monday's poll, according to the election commission.

That is comfortably above the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off.

Guterres's closest rival, Education Minister Antonio de Conceicao, was on 33 per cent in a crowded field of eight candidates, election commission chief Alcino Baris told AFP.

If final results confirm Guterres's victory, he will take over the largely ceremonial role 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.

He was backed by the country's second-biggest party Fretilin, which he leads, as well as by independence hero Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party, the largest.

"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.

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