Thursday, April 9, 2009

Successful election marks a decade of democracy

Friday, April 10, 2009 2:47 AM

Indonesians flooded polling stations across the sprawling island nation Thursday, capping a decade of democracy in a parliamentary election that boosted the reform-minded president's chances of re-election.

Violence in the easternmost province of Papua, the scene of a decades-long insurgency, marred otherwise peaceful polls with five killed in a string of pre-dawn attacks by suspected rebels, said local police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto.

Millions lined up to cast ballots, choosing between 38 parties vying for seats in the new 560-member legislature.

The vote is being closely watched because it will determine who will qualify to run for president in July. Parties or coalitions that win a fifth of the seats - or 25 percent of the popular vote - can nominate a candidate for that race.

Early results showed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party quickly emerging as the front-runner, tripling its share of the popular vote to 21 percent from just 7 percent in 2004.

But if those tallies hold he will still need to form a coalition - probably again with Vice President Jusuf Kalla's Golkar Party - to govern.

They "have a really great chance to continue their mandate for a second term," said Ichlasul Amal, a political scientist at the University of Gadjah Mada in central Java. "It's a nice and easy choice."

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, emerged from 32 years of dictatorship when Gen. Suharto was swept from power in 1998, leading to reforms that freed the media, vastly improved the country's human rights record, and for the first time allowed citizens to vote for president.

Despite some concerns about polling irregularities, religious intolerance and an ongoing ban on left-wing political activities, Indonesia has surprised many by turning into to one of the most stable democracies in the region.

There were 171 million eligible voters, making it the world's third largest electorate behind India and the United States. They flocked to 500,000 polling stations spread out across thousands of islands.

"It's an enormous undertaking," said Paul Rowland of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, noting that hundreds of thousands also will be contesting legislative seats at the provincial, municipal and regency level.

"It's the world's largest single-day election this year. We'll see more people voting for more positions than any other country."

Many voters were baffled by the myriad of choices, with hundreds of candidates sometimes listed on a poster-sized ballot.

"It's more complicated than last time," said Rivaldi Aswin, a 25-year-old bank employee who turned out with 300 others at a station west of the capital, Jakarta.

"I barely recognized any of the faces," he said after having his pinky dabbed with purple ink to keep people from repeat voting. "But I'm glad to have this opportunity."

Last time around, Yudhoyono's party won only 7 percent of the popular vote and had to partner up with late dictator Suharto's Golkar party and a handful of Islamic parties that pushed through laws governing everything from the way women dressed to the types of magazines that could be hawked on street corners.

Though many analysts had predicted waning support for religious parties, the early returns indicated the conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party, which came from nowhere in 2004 to scoop up 7.3 percent of the popular vote, may have made small gains.

Campaigns across the board were largely personality driven and policies have been broad and ill-defined, focusing on issues like the effect the global slowdown has had on the economy or the need to root out pervasive corruption.

Unlike 2004, security is no longer a big issue, something many credit to Yudhoyono.

Indonesia was last hit by an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack four years ago and, thanks to a 2005 peace deal, guns have largely fallen silent in formerly war-torn Aceh province, on the country's northwestern tip.

Early quick count results were trickling in Thursday.

With more than 75 percent of the vote counted, the Indonesian Survey Circle had Yudhoyono's Democratic Party in the lead with 20 percent; the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, 15 percent; and Suharto's former political machine, Golkar, 15 percent.

The religious-based Islamic Prosperous Justice Party had 8 percent.
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