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Indonesia begins voting in general election

Indonesians began voting on Thursday in only the third general election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, in a poll that will decide who can run for president in July.

world Updated: Apr 09, 2009 09:07 IST

Indonesians began voting on Thursday in only the third general election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, in a poll that will decide who can run for president in July.

Suharto's resignation amid protests and financial ruin after three decades in power heralded the start of the "Reformasi" era of political change, and Thursday's vote is seen as another key test for Indonesia's young democracy.

"Our polling stations are now open for the Indonesian elections. We are waiting for voters to arrive," said electoral official Enos, of Timika, Papua. The mainly Muslim country's 171 million eligible voters are being asked to choose between thousands of candidates on local, provincial and national levels, across 520,000 polling booths and some 6,000 inhabited islands.

Polls opened at 7:00 am (2200 GMT on Wednesday) in the restive eastern province of Papua, where police are on alert after a series of demonstrations calling for independence and a boycott of the vote. Papua and western Aceh province -- where a three-decade separatist war ended in 2005 -- are two hot spots for potential trouble during the election but most analysts predict the day will pass in relative peace.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party is leading most opinion polls, well ahead of its more established rivals in the main opposition Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar, Suharto's former ruling party.

A survey published by the Indonesian Survey Institute on Sunday gave the Democrats 26.6 percent support compared with 14.5 for the PDI-P of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and 13.7 for Golkar. If the polls are correct the vote will be a major victory for liberal ex-general Yudhoyono and the party he founded in 2001, and will put him on course for re-election as head of state in July.

Thirty eight parties -- loosely divided along nationalist and religious lines -- are competing for spots in the 560-seat House of Representatives but most will fail to win the required minimum of 2.5 percent of the vote.

"We'll see the burial of many small parties," Denny Januar Ali of the Indonesian Survey Circle, a polling and research agency, said this week. Maintaining growth in the face of the global financial meltdown is the main issue on voters' minds, along with endemic corruption that infects all levels of society.

Southeast Asia's biggest economy is expected to avoid recession but its exports are plunging, foreign investment is drying up and millions of poor Indonesians are struggling to stay above the poverty line.

As voters focus on worldly concerns, support for Islamic parties has declined to an all-time low in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, according to opinion polls.

None has polled above five percent in opinion surveys, although they are still likely to be players in post-election coalition jostling which will decide which parties can choose candidates for the more important presidential elections.

Party campaigns have been characterised by vote buying, empty sloganeering and speeches punctuated by sing-alongs and pop music performances. The absence of any serious policy debate is reflected in survey figures showing as many as 25 percent of voters are undecided and many more could spoil their ballot papers.