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Indonesians may backtrack in national voting

As Indonesians headed to the polls Monday to elect a national legislature, they were expected to hand the most seats to the party of ousted President Suharto, putting the tenure of Megawati Sukarnoputri in question.
Indonesians mark their ballots during voting in national elections at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore on Monday. Jonathan Drake / Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

In their second parliamentary election since casting off Suharto’s dictatorship six years ago, Indonesians appeared ready Monday to hand his party the most seats — a result that would dent President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s re-election bid. Early Tuesday, Megawati's party had managed an early lead, but hardly suggesting a wave of support.

Voting across the vast archipelago of 17,000 islands was marred by delays, shortages of election materials, registration cards delivered to children and dead people, and confusing ballots featuring hundreds of names and dozens of party logos.

Yet it was a monumental accomplishment in its scope and the logistics needed to pull it off. Nearly 600,000 polling stations manned by 5 million workers spanned three time zones and 3,000 miles from Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east. Some polling stations were a five-day walk from the nearest road.

Suharto’s Golkar Party and Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle were poised to dominate the 550-seat House of Representatives. Turnout was expected to be high.

But the fact that there was voting at all was a triumph, and many Indonesians saw the polling as a chance to make their voices heard. The nation has been beset by several wars of secession, an often brutal military and a lethal onslaught by al-Qaida-linked terrorists.

The blight of graft
“We need lawmakers who will turn away from corruption,” said 33-year-old Jakarta resident Fauzi al Idrus, explaining his vote for the Muslim-based Party of Justice and Prosperity.

“It’s not because it’s a Muslim party. It’s because they’re good, honest people.”

One of the defining features of the 22-day campaign was the silence of the five main Muslim parties on the issue of Islamic law, or sharia. Instead, they spoke of the need to improve the economy and root out graft — perhaps the chief ill plaguing Indonesia’s fledgling democracy.

That is likely to translate into more parliamentary seats for parties like Justice and Prosperity — even though Muslim-based parties as a whole are not expected to significantly increase their current share of about a third of parliament seats.

The vote was not a contest between radicals and moderates because the latter already dominate Indonesian politics and society. A small fundamentalist fringe has steered clear of the political process, instead resorting to terrorism to impose its vision of an Islamic state in the world’s fourth-most populous nation.

Although 80 percent of Indonesia’s 210 million people are Muslims, there are no fundamentalist parties. There also are no left-wing groupings, and the once-formidable Communist Party — which Suharto’s U.S.-backed dictatorship decimated in the 1960s — remains banned.

The 24 parties in Monday’s voting comprise either secular nationalists — such as Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle — or moderate parties loosely based on Islam.

Megawati in early lead
Election results started trickling, but not enough to indicate a trend. On Tuesday, Megawati’s PDIP led with 20 percent of the less than 400,000 votes tallied — a miniscule percentage of the country’s 147 million registered voters.

It was closely followed by former president Abdurraham Wahid’s National Awakening Party and former Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, according to the General Election Commission.

In addition to voting for the House of Representatives, Indonesians were voting for a newly formed regional representatives council that will advise the government, and local legislative councils.

Recent opinion polls have shown Megawati’s party trailing Golkar in the parliamentary vote, a result that would hurt her chances in Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections in July.

Declining popularity
Megawati, the eldest daughter of Indonesian founding President Sukarno, has capitalized on nostalgia for her father’s legacy but also has been accused of abandoning the poor, whom she once claimed to champion.

Public opinion polls have indicated that no party will win an outright majority in the legislature. Parties are likely to enter an intense period of coalition-building ahead of the July vote. If no one wins an outright majority in that race, as is likely, a runoff election will be held in September.

Indonesia’s only previous free election was in 1999, a year after Suharto’s dictatorship ended. In that election, Megawati’s PDIP won 34 percent, followed by Golkar’s 22.5 percent.

Since then, Megawati’s popularity has fallen while Golkar has enjoyed a resurgence amid discontent over an anemic economy and widespread corruption.

The new Democratic Party of her opponent, Yudhoyono, is expected to establish itself as a formidable political force in Monday’s election.

Suharto voted near his home in Jakarta. Accompanied by two aides and his daughter, the 82-year-old former president appeared healthy, waving and smiling but saying nothing. Suharto’s lawyers say he is too sick to stand trial on corruption charges despite his periodic sprightly public appearances.