Subject: LUSA: Presidential Candidates Urge Heavy Turnout, CM To Vote Blank

11 Apr 02 14:10 East Timor: Presidential Candidates Urge Heavy Turnout, CM To Vote Blank

East Timor´s two presidential candidates publicly embraced each other Thursday in Dili, appealing to voters to cast ballots in Sunday´s election, the last political milestone before the territory gains independence on May 20.

In calling for a heavy turnout, both Xanana Gusmao, the wide favorite, and rival Xavier do Amaral said more united than divided them.

They dismissed as a "free" choice the announcement hours earlier by Chief Minister Mari Alkatiri that he would cast a blank ballot.

Separately, the head of the European Union´s election observer team, Briton John Bowis, said he was receiving worrying reports that unnamed activists were encouraging people to vote for both candidates, thus voiding ballots.

He described the reported campaign as "unacceptable intimidation and pressure" on the territory´s inexperienced and largely illiterate voters.

Gusmao organizers have charged the ruling Fretilin party was discreetly urging the electorate to boycott his campaign, allegations strongly denied by the party Gusmao once led.

In his announcement, Alkatiri said his no-choice stance was one of "equidistance" because his preference would be "to vote for both" candidates, both historical figures in East Timor´s struggle for independence from Indonesian occupation.

He said he would go to the polls but would cast a blank ballot, rather than abstaining as erroneously reported earlier by Lusa.

Alkatiri also threatened "to sue" any institution, including the European Union, who charged Fretilin of leading voters to void their ballots.

A reluctant candidate, Gusmao opted to run with the backing of nine small parties, rejecting dominant Fretilin´s offer of support and its demand he run as an independent.

Fretilin, which holds 55 of Dili´s 88 Constituent Assembly seats, fielded no candidate of its own, giving its supporters freedom of choice in the election.

Often-tense relations between Gusmao and Fretilin´s current leadership worsened after the party won last August´s constituent assembly elections by a landslide and ignored his calls for formation of a broad cabinet of national unity.

SAS/ASP -Lusa-

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