BALIBAR, East Timor - East Timor went to the polls Saturday in a presidential election seen as a crucial test for a young democracy taking charge of its own security as UN forces prepare to leave. Voting that got off to a slow start after polls opened around 7:00am (2200 GMT Friday) picked up briskly by late morning, in a contest that pits the incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace laureate, against 11 other hopefuls. Early voting was reported nationwide, with some polling stations having to dip into reserve ballots, election officials said, indicating a large turnout.

At a school house in the village of Balibar, in the cool hills overlooking the capital Dili, poll workers in yellow T-shirts unsealed blue plastic boxes of ballots delivered under United Nations Police protection.

Voters, some carrying babies or toddlers and many barefoot, began trickling into the school about an hour after opening, in the country’s second presidential election as an independent nation.

The vote is the first in a series of key events in the poor and chronically unstable country still traumatised by Indonesia’s brutal 24-year occupation, which ended with a vote for independence in 1999.

In May, East Timor will celebrate 10 years of independence, which came after three years of UN administration. Then, in June, voters will choose a new government in a general election.

At the end of the year the nation of 1.1 million people bids goodbye to UN forces stationed in the country since 1999.

Among East Timor’s many problems is its heavy reliance on energy reserves, which account for around 90 percent of state revenues.

The International Monetary Fund calls it the “most oil-dependent economy in the world”.

In an orderly fashion voters had their names checked against a list, then emerged from the village school house with coffee-coloured ink on their index fingers to indicate they had voted.

“It is an obligation for every citizen to vote because this is a democracy and we have the right to choose our own leaders,” said Sidonia Perreira, a government clerk who walked to the school with his wife and two small children.

Poll workers led an old lady stooped over with age, and another handicapped woman barefoot and limping, by the hand as they arrived to vote.

Beyond the temporary polling stations, people in the half-island nation went about their morning business, many walking barefoot for their daily shopping at ramshackle roadside stands selling melons, coconuts and vegetables.

Constitutionally, the presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but its profile has been boosted by Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the independence conflict.

The popular 62-year-old, who survived a 2008 assassination attempt, is the second post-independence president after Xanana Gusmao — a former anti-Indonesia rebel leader who is now prime minister.

The race for the presidency is expected to be a three-way contest between Ramos-Horta, the Fretilin party’s Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres and former armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak, a guerrilla leader during the occupation.

Candidates must garner more than 50 percent of the vote for an outright win, otherwise a run-off will be held in two weeks.

“There will be no second round. I am confident I will win today,” Ruak told reporters shortly after voting at a Dili school crowded with voters, journalists, international observers and a stray dog nursing puppies.

Ramos-Horta won in a second-round of voting against Guterres in 2007, buoyed by the support of Gusmao’s Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) party.

But this time the party is backing Ruak. Ramos-Horta has been increasingly critical of Gusmao’s government, but he said he was not displeased with the prime minister’s decision to back his rival Ruak.

“I’m very happy he’s supporting one of my favourite candidates. If someone supports (Ruak) I’m happy because I admire (Ruak),” he told reporters after voting.

Voting is expected to end around 0600 GMT and formal results are not expected until early next week.

International observers and representatives from Australia, the European Union and Portuguese-speaking nations are monitoring the vote.