Former East Timor independence fighter Jose Maria de Vasconcelos has been elected president, a post vital to promoting stability in Asia's newest and one of its poorest countries.

Provisional results show that Vasconcelos, who is also known as Taur Matan Ruak, won about 61 percent of the vote with about 98 percent of ballots counted, government election commission official Tomas Cabral told reporters.

Ruak defeated another former independence fighter, Francisco Guterres Lu Olo, from the opposition Fretilin party who won 38.8 percent of the vote in Monday's run-off, Cabral said.

The tally is still being updated but it indicates that Taur Matan Ruak has gotten the majority of votes, said Cabral.

The president plays little role in policy making but is vital to promoting stability in the country that gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 after years of bloody struggle, and was later rocked by factional unrest.

He can become a president who will unify all political forces, his spokesman, Fidelis Magalhaes, told a news conference.

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and later annexed. For decades Indonesia tried in vain to crush opposition to its rule.

Ruak's nickname means two sharp eyes in a dialect of the country's Tetum language. He was the last commander of East Timor's National Liberation Army, Falintil, before independence.

Central to his election campaign was his role in the independence movement and his argument that the struggle remains incomplete, said Cillian Nolan, a Southeast Asia expert with the International Crisis Group think tank.

The struggle that began in the jungle by the guerrilla fighters during the resistance ... bringing independence to East Timor, is unfinished because the second part of the struggle is to increase the wellbeing of the population. This appears to have been an appealing message for voters, he said.

PEACEFUL TRANSITION?

Incumbent President Jose Ramos-Horta was eliminated in the first round last month. Ramos-Horta won the Nobel peace prize for his role in the country's independence campaign and survived an assassination attempt in 2008.

He lost the support of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and his CNRT party which had backed Ramos-Horta when he first stood for president in 2007. Gusmao instead backed Ruak, Nolan said.

It is hoped the peaceful election will set the scene for a concerted effort to tackle high unemployment, poverty and a lack of infrastructure.

The real question is whether Timor-Leste will be able to emerge fully from a past filled with violence and oppression, and whether it will be able to enjoy a peaceful transition of power, Jose Ramos-Horta said in a commentary in the New York Times.

I view the fact that our elections are competitive with a sense of contentment. They are a sign that the country is maturing, he said.

East Timor has offshore gas resources but it is embroiled in a dispute over the exploitation of the reserves with Australia's Woodside Petroleum, which heads a consortium of firms developing the Greater Sunrise project gas field.

About 73 percent of East Timorese voted on Monday. The High Court will ratify the result after an independent election commission checks the final result.

Parliamentary elections are due on July 7.

(Reporting by Tito Belo; Additional reporting and writing by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Matthew Bigg)