East Timor Majority Party Leads

DILI, (AFP) - East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's party looked set to win this weekend's parliamentary elections, a key test for the young and fragile democracy, preliminary results showed Sunday.

His centre-left National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) won 36.6 percent of the votes in Saturday's poll, likely to determine whether UN peacekeepers can leave by the end of the year, an official tally showed.

But it was unclear whether his party would need to form a coalition, and there are concerns violence could be reignited in the energy-rich but impoverished state if there is drawn-out wrangling to form a government.

The main opposition left-wing Fretilin party was in second place with 29.8 percent, according to a preliminary count of 100 percent of the votes released by the electoral commission.

The Democratic Party (PD), a member of the current ruling coalition, won 10.3 percent of the vote, according to the tally. Final results were not expected for several days.

The electoral commission gave no indication of how many seats in parliament each party had won.

While the results indicated that Gusmao's five-year term could be extended, it was unclear whether his party would be able to govern alone. The United Nations sees the polls; and their aftermath, as the last big test that will decide whether its remaining 1,300 peacekeepers and other security staff can withdraw as planned within six months.

Presidential polls that were held over two rounds in March and April passed off peacefully, and there has been no major violence linked to the parliamentary polls.

In the last legislative elections in 2007 Fretilin won 21 of the total 65 seats, or 29 percent, while the CNRT won 18 seats, or 24 percent. But the CNRT won out in the post-election horse-trading to lead a coalition government with three smaller parties.

It remains to be seen whether the CNRT, which has the support of President Taur Matan Ruak, will be able to wrest an absolute majority of 33 seats or whether it will have to cobble together a coalition.

Wrangling over a coalition generated weeks of tensions after the 2007 elections.

Following the end of Portuguese rule in 1975, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years. Some 183,000 people died from fighting, disease and starvation before the half-island state voted for independence in 1999.

The country has offshore fields of oil and natural gas and its Petroleum Fund has swelled to $10 billion, but corruption is endemic.

Half of East Timor's 1.1 million people are officially classified as living in poverty, posing the main challenge for the future government.

''The biggest risk is poverty,'' Ruak said Saturday after casting his vote.

CNRT campaigned on a platform of longer-term investment on major infrastructure projects such as roads, electricity and water.

Fretilin, which is synonymous with the pro-independence struggle, has campaigned on a populist platform of spending oil revenues to lift income and education levels.

The elections are a test of whether East Timor, which celebrated a decade of formal independence in May, is ready to take on its own security.

A 450-strong International Stabilization Force (ISF); made up of troops from New Zealand and Australia, is also awaiting the outcome of the poll before finalizing a pullout.

The United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT) -- with a total current military, police and civilian force of about 3,000; was deployed in 2006, after a political crisis in which dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced, with a mandate to restore security.

The 66-year-old prime minister, whose birth name is Kay Rala Gusmao, is a charismatic hero of the resistance.